‘Trust Me’: Kamala Harris Makes Big Play on Criminal Justice Reform

Senator Kamala Harris of California released a sweeping proposal on Monday to overhaul the criminal justice system, vowing to end mass incarceration and revamp police practices through a progressive wish list of policies, including some ideas Ms. Harris previously rejected during her years as a district attorney and state attorney general.

For months, Democratic presidential candidates have courted liberal activists with wide-ranging criminal justice plans, but Ms. Harris’s plan carries special significance. She has long cast herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” but some criminal justice experts and activists have balked at that characterization, saying she operated with the same “tough on crime” instincts that helped create the criminal justice problems she now seeks to solve.

The plan, perhaps the most ambitious effort of Ms. Harris’s campaign so far, focuses on reducing the prison population, creating national standards in policing, ensuring humane treatment for incarcerated people and prioritizing historically vulnerable communities. It also embraces ideas that have gone from the policy fringe to largely consensus positions popular among Democrats, including ending mandatory minimum sentences, eliminating private prisons, legalizing marijuana and incentivizing states to untether themselves from a cash bail system that disproportionately burdens the poor.

Previewing the plan in an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Harris painted it as a full-circle moment in her decades-long career in law enforcement. Her pitch to voters, she said, was that her years spent trying to change the criminal justice system from the inside had uniquely prepared her to lead its overhaul from the executive branch.

“I know the system from the inside out,” Ms. Harris said. “So trust me when I say we have a problem with mass incarceration in America. Trust me when I say we have a problem with accountability. Trust me when I say we have to take the profit out of criminal justice.”

“This is not just about rhetoric, or hyperbole, or grand gesture or, you know, some beautiful speech,” she added, dismissing the idea that the policy arrived late in her campaign. “This literally is what I plan to do, and that required thoughtfulness.”

There are several progressive policies in Ms. Harris’s new plan that she opposed during her career as a prosecutor. She pushed for higher cash bails for certain crimes in 2004 as San Francisco’s district attorney, declined to support marijuana legalization in 2010 and, as California’s attorney general, refused to back independent investigations for police shootings as recently as 2014.

When asked about her apparent evolution, Ms. Harris said the political environment had shifted — not her core ideology.

“I was swimming against the current, and thankfully the currents have changed,” she said. “The winds are in our sails. And I’m riding that just like everybody else is — because it’s long overdue.”

Ms. Harris said the work of social justice activists, particularly Black Lives Matter protesters, had opened eyes across the country to realities of racial injustices. She was always aware of these injustices, Ms. Harris said, but she was working in a system that did not have the political will to correct them.

And she pointedly said her critics should remember the tough-on-crime political environment that dominated in the 1990s and early 2000s, during much of her career as a prosecutor. “If I want to get competitive about it,” she said, “I’d say to them, well, what were they saying about the system back in the ’90s? What were they doing to change the system in the ’90s?”

“But hey, if you’ve got, in the year of our Lord 2019, all the major candidates running for president of United States pushing for reforming the system? That’s a good thing,” she added.

Now, Ms. Harris is seeking to reclaim the mystique that catapulted her into the highest echelons of the Democratic presidential race just two years after her election to the Senate. After her performance in the first debate in June led to a surge in polling and fund-raising, her poll numbers have slipped to the mid-single digits, putting her a step below the race’s top-tier candidates: former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

In response, Ms. Harris has sharpened her policy message. For her criminal justice platform, she sought input from an array of activists, including some of the black progressives who have criticized her record in California.

To emphasize this new focus, the Harris campaign planned to release a video on Monday with several prominent criminal justice voices, including Phillip A. Goff of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Angela Rye, a CNN commentator.

Ms. Harris is also leaning into an explicit pitch about her identity as a barrier-breaking woman of color in a primary race increasingly dominated by white candidates. Apart from any professional experience, Ms. Harris said she was best suited to disrupt a criminal justice system that has disproportionately affected minority communities because she has more personal experiences with those communities.

“The thing is, that when I see the people that we are talking about who are in the system, I see them in a multidimensional way,” Ms. Harris said. “And I don’t just see them based on race and gender. It’s not something I read about. It’s more complex than just knowing the history of racism in America — which most people don’t — it’s about also being able to see them as people.”

Asked if it was still possible for her to win over skeptical criminal justice activists, including black ones, Ms. Harris said she believed she could.

“Communities, and particularly the black community has a righteous distrust of law enforcement based on histories of empirical evidence — they have a reason to distrust,” she said. “But I understand that, and it was this is part of why I became a prosecutor, because I understood that there are good reasons to not trust the system, and it needs to be changed.”

Ms. Harris’s new plan is an attempt to break away from constant litigation of her record and win over Democrats with an affirmative criminal justice vision.

The plan calls for a national criminal justice commission that would study how to reduce mass incarceration and recidivism while still holding offenders, including violent ones, accountable. It would end the federal sentencing disparity between powder and crack cocaine — a disparity created by legislation sponsored by Mr. Biden, who has since apologized. And it would spend more than $75 billion on support services outside prisons, including “Back on Track” training and assistance programs, which Ms. Harris pioneered in California.

DeRay Mckesson, an activist and podcast host who helped found Campaign Zero, an initiative to end police violence, and who has discussed criminal justice platforms with several candidates, said criminal justice activists had been waiting for Ms. Harris to release a plan.

“The bar is different for her because she’s legitimately an expert” on criminal justice, said Mr. Mckesson, who has seen a preview of Ms. Harris’s plan. “We’ve been looking for a plan that will fundamentally transform the system, because we know it’s a system she knows.”

Several organizations, including Campaign Zero and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, shared memos with Ms. Harris’s campaign about what they wanted to see in a criminal justice policy, which included restoring voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, incentivizing police departments adopt a national standard for the use of force, and reinstating President Barack Obama’s executive order that prohibited sales of certain military equipment to local police departments. Ms. Harris adopted all of those ideas in her proposal.

Other Democratic candidates have also released robust positions on criminal justice, including two recent offers by Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, the race’s other major black candidate, championed the First Step Act, which was signed into law last year, and Julián Castro, the former housing secretary, has won plaudits for his early focus on policing. Mr. Biden and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., have also offered proposals.

Mr. Biden helped write, and Mr. Sanders voted for, the 1994 crime bill that has been widely criticized by civil rights experts for contributing to the rising prison population. Mr. Buttigieg has had strained relations with black residents in South Bend, and Mr. Booker has faced scrutiny for “stop and frisk” tactics used by the police when he was mayor of Newark. Still, Ms. Harris has faced some of the fiercest attacks over her criminal justice record.

“The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor — you owe them an apology,” Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii told Ms. Harris at a debate in July.

Ms. Harris has become familiar with this line of criticism, including the internet memes that have labeled her a “cop” and, sometimes, a turncoat to minority communities that are historically distrustful of the police and the legal system.

She has defended her record on the debate stage, but she admitted in the interview that the attacks had stung, particularly when levied by black activists. “It feels awful,” she said.

“I understand it intellectually. Emotionally, it’s hurtful,” Ms. Harris added. “I know what motivated me to become a prosecutor, I know what motivated me to do the kind of work we did, and I know that it was groundbreaking work.”

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