In her career as a prosecutor, the Democrat supported increased criminalization of sex work, took no action in key police abuse cases and defended a troubled prison system
as Kamala Harris prepares to enter the competitive field of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates as a frontrunner, the California senator is presenting herself as a criminal justice reformer, an ally of Black Lives Matter, and a defender of America’s most vulnerable citizens. Clips of her sharp questioning of Trump administration officials have gone viral.
The daughter of immigrants who took her in a stroller to civil rights protests, Harris has been a pathbreaker at almost every step of her political career. She was born in Oakland, where she later served on the frontlines of America’s harsh criminal justice system as a local prosecutor in the 1990s. She went on to become the first African American and the first woman elected as San Francisco district attorney in 2003 and as California attorney general in 2010. She was the second black woman and first south Asian woman elected to the US Senate in 2016.Throughout her meteoric career, she has tried to transcend “tough on crime” or “soft on crime” stereotypes, and instead labeled herself as “smart on crime” – eager to put people in prison for violent offenses, but wary of wasting taxpayer dollars, a champion of some criminal justice reforms but still tough enough to remain electable in the most punitive country on earth.
Her record as a prosecutor in California, however, complicates her progressive image.
Among the many policies now drawing renewed scrutiny, Harris’s approach to sex work, police reform, prisoners’ rights and truancy reveal the tensions between her record in law enforcement and her current progressive rhetoric.
For decades, Harris’s law enforcement credentials were central to her appeal to voters. Now, as the Democratic party continues to reckon with its history of endorsing racist, ineffective criminal justice policies, her background has become, for some voters, a liability.
When Harris appeared on the feminist podcast Call Your Girlfriend last summer, the two hosts chatted with her warmly about what it was like being America’s only black female senator – and what it was like to constantly have people mispronounce her name.
But the hosts, Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow, questioned Harris on one position they said they did not understand: why had she worked to shut down Backpage.com, a website sex workers used for advertisements and that many argued had made their work m
Today, Harris presents herself as an advocate for victims of sexual exploitation, but her practices as prosecutor and the legislation she has supported have often conflated human “trafficking” with consensual adult sex work.
Harris’s DA office participated in sting operations that used female police officers to pose as prostitutes and arrest men who interact with them. The “loitering” cases that followed disproportionally targeted Latino men. Harris was also a vocal opponent of a proposition to decriminalize prostitution.On Backpage, which Harris called the “world’s top online brothel”, she pursued pimping charges against the website operators, even after a judged tossed an initial case on free speech grounds. Harris continued her opposition to the website as a senator and supported legislation that further criminalized sex work across the internet.
Backpage’s closure has left many sex workers strapped for cash to pay for housing and medicines and forced some sex workers to turn to more precarious kinds of work to make up for lost income. “It put these girls out of the safety net the internet has provided and back on the streets,” said Kiki Bryant, a 27-year-old writer and sex workers’ rights activist.
Matilda Bickers, a 34-year-old sex workers’ organizer, said: “If you want to help marginalized and exploited people, you protect them, you don’t further limit their options … It’s been devastating.”
Phoenix Calida, another sex worker, said Harris was a leader in a bipartisan agenda that put sex workers and victims of trafficking behind bars, championing a policy position that Calida believes will be viewed as backwards and unethical years from now, similar to the “war on drugs”: “This is absolutely tough on crime. It’s about hurting people in the name of crime reduction.”
“We must speak truth about police brutality, about racial bias, about the killing of unarmed black men,” Harris writes in her new political memoir, The Truths We Hold. “Police brutality occurs in America and we have to root it out wherever we find it.”
Harris lists the names of some of the most high-profile victims of police killings: Walter Scott in South Carolina, Philando Castile in Minnesota, Eric Garner in New York. But there are other names she does not add to this list, including Alan Blueford, Mario Woods, and Amilcar Perez-Lopez – all victims who were killed in the San Francisco Bay Area, and whose cases Harris could have directly addressed.
Before stepping down as attorney general to become a senator, Harris took a few steps to tackle the issue of police brutality. She opened civil rights investigations into two California police departments that ranked among thedeadliest in the US. She also increased access to data about the use of force by police, spoke openly about “racial disparities” the statistics revealed, and introduced statewide law enforcement training on procedural justice and implicit bias.
But earlier in her career, as California’s top prosecutor, Harris frequently did not use her authority to investigate allegations of misconduct and abuse by police and prosecutors, even in the face of clear evidence of wrongdoing. She opposed legislation that would have required her office to investigate fatal shootings by police and repeatedly fought to keep people incarcerated when there was overwhelming evidence of wrongful convictions.
Jeff Adachi, the public defender of San Francisco, twice urged Harris to open a civil rights investigation into the San Francisco police department, once after a police were caught sending racist and homophobic text messages and again a string of high-profile killings of young people of color by police. “I never received a response,” Adachi said in an email.
In 2016, numerous male officers across the Bay Area became embroiled in a sexual exploitation scandal.
The local district attorneys, which work closely with police departments, were slow to bring criminal cases, and when they did, the charges largely fell apart. A federal judge said the Oakland police department’s investigation into its own officers was “wholly inadequate”, but Harris did not launch her own investigation. The inaction was particularly shameful and hypocritical given her stated commitments on fighting trafficking and protecting exploited youth, activists said.
“We pleaded with her and pressured her to at least investigate, if not prosecute, some of the local police departments who had killed African American men and Latino men,” said Anne Butterfield Weills, a local civil rights lawyer. “She ignored us.”
Harris’s current spokesperson said the Oakland police scandal was handled by a local district attorney.
Defender of the prison system
Last May, Roxana Hernández, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras who sought asylum in the United States, died while in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice). Harris was one of the Democratic senators who has since spotlighted her case, demanding that Ice officials provide answers about how and why she died, and calling her case “deeply troubling”.
As a senator, Harris has introduced bipartisan legislation to reform the money bail system, which traps low-income Americans in jail on low-level charges, simply because they cannot pay the fee that would allow them to await trial at home.
But as attorney general, Harris spent years defending malpractices in California’s troubled and overcrowded prison system. Her positions at the time are at odds with some of her policy positions as a senator.
In 2015, Harris’s office fought to stop a Michelle-Lael Norsworthy, a trans woman in California’s prison system prison, from getting reassignment surgery.
She had the power to take a principled stand but chose not to, the same way she refused to defend the ban on gay marriage, said Jennifer Orthwein, an attorney who represented Norsworthy, noting that allowing Norsworthy’s surgery would have put their client in a much better position to re-enter society.
If [Harris] would grapple publicly with what was going on when she was denying the rights of trans people in prison and admit that her mind has changed … I might not call her a hypocrite,” said EmilyRose Johns, a civil rights lawyer who has fought for trans rights behind bars in California.
As the top lawyer for the prison system, Harris also defended the use of lengthy solitary confinement, despite evidence the practice causes long-term and severe harm to prisoners.
Though a settlement ultimately led to reforms, the years-long battle means Harris’s legacy includes extreme suffering for thousands of prisoners who were stuck in isolation during the court battle, said Weills. “They are broken people – psychologically, physically damaged.”
Harris’s current spokeswoman said she was obligated to defend the prison system in those cases and that she worked to change policies. As a prosecutor, she also created an intervention program to give job training to low-level drug offenders. Harris has also fought juvenile solitary confinement as a senator.
Throughout her political rise, Harris has celebrated the success of one of her “smart on crime” strategies: prosecuting parents whose kids were frequently absent from school. Truancy was a criminal justice issue, she argued – 94% of San Francisco’s young homicide victims were high school dropouts.
In 2008, Harris spent $20,000 on a campaign advertising a hotline San Francisco residents should call if they spotted any kids playing hooky during school hours, a local news station reported. The ad campaign targeted three historically black and Latinx neighborhoods.
If we don’t educate these kids in the classroom, they’re going to be educated in the streets,” she said in 2009, announcing an expansion of her anti-truancy strategy. She eventually championed a new statewide anti-truancy law that specified that parents of chronically truant students could face a maximum penalty of a year’s imprisonment in county jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
Harris has stressed that the goal of the strategy was to use the threat of prosecution to get parents of chronically truant students to meet with officials and make a plan for getting their students got to school. No parents have ever been arrested or jailed for truancy in San Francisco, during Harris’s time or after, according to a prosecutor who still works on the issue in the current district attorney’s office.
By late 2010, as Harris was running for California attorney general, the total number of parents prosecuted in San Francisco was just 25, Harris said at the time. She credited the overall truancy strategy with a 33% increase in attendance at San Francisco schools.
“As Senator Harris has said many times, she knows all parents love their children and many did not have the resources to get them to school, which is why her office worked with the school district and parents to get families the services they needed,” Harris’s spokeswoman, Lily Adams, said.
But some advocates said that Harris’s policy got the issue backwards: student truancy was not a problem of bad or neglectful parents, but a symptom of broader problems within the school systems, including chronic underfunding of California public schools. A punitive approach to truancy threatened to fuel the school to prison pipeline and make life harder for students missing school because they were homeless or their parents were already caught up in the criminal justice system.
Jyoti Nanda, a law professor who runs a youth and justice clinic at the University of California Los Angeles, said she had been “deeply disappointed” by Harris’s “fearmongering” on truancy, which she said was “completely the opposite of best practices” to help students.
The way Harris had framed truancy as the individual fault of poor parents, Nanda said, fed into old, ugly stereotypes about poor families and families of color.
“To the extent that she can acknowledge that it was a mistake to have that rhetoric, I think that would go a long way,” Nanda said.
Bickers, the sex worker rights’ activist, said she would like to see Harris reconcile with her prosecutorial record, admit her failings and demonstrate how she has changed: “We all learn and grow.”
But without that accountability, she added, “She’s not the radical option.”