by Danielle Sanders
Since the announcement of Kamala Harris as the Vice-Presidential pick by Joe Biden, the public, the media, and political pundits have dissected her. Questions about her race, qualifications, personal life, and public service record have been sources of critiques, rumors, and plenty of false claims. Kamala Harris nomination is already historic. She is the first Black and Indian woman included on a presidential ticket for a major party. With so much at stake in this year’s election, it is vital to know the facts before heading to the voting booth. Today we separate fact from fiction regarding her record on the most debated aspects of her career and policies concerning criminal justice.
Her Race, Background, and Education
Kamala Harris is a black woman of mixed ancestry. She was born in Oakland, CA, October 20, 1964. She is 54 years old. Her parents are immigrants, her father immigrating from Jamaica, and her mother from India. A graduate of Howard University in 1986. She earned a degree in political science and economics and obtained her law degree from Hastings College in 1989. She is also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She is married to Douglas Emhoff and is stepmom to his two children.
Immediately after law school, she joined the Alameda County office as a District Attorney, where she worked as a prosecutor for eight years. She worked as the managing attorney for the San Francisco District Attorney’s Career Criminal Unit before transferring to the Division on Families and Children to lead that department in 2000. She was elected San Francisco District Attorney in 2003, where she served two terms. In 2010, she made history, as she became the state’s attorney general, the first black and first woman to do so. In 2016, she was elected US senator, again making history as the second African American to hold the office. She is also a published author with three books.
Her Record as Prosecutor and Attorney General
Perhaps the most debated area of her record is her time as Prosecutor and Attorney General in California from 2003-2017.
There are claims that Kamala Harris sent over 1500 people to state prisons for marijuana-related offenses during her tenure as DA. However, most of those cases were not tried by her office but by city prosecutors and county district attorneys. According to the California Department of Corrections, the total people admitted to prison during her term as Attorney General in 2011-2016 was 1,876; however, from the time she was elected to her last day in office, that number declined by 83.2%, partially because of the marijuana law passed in 2019, which decriminalized cannabis.
There were also other questionable moments during her time as AG and prosecutor. Her plan to prosecute parents of truant students was viewed as unfairly harsh. Many felt these unfairly targeted black and brown parents. She said later it was a decision she regretted stating the intent was never to criminalize parents.
Her office was also criticized for the poor handling of wrongful convictions, particularly in the case of Kevin Cooker and George Gage. Kevin Cooper is currently on death row in California’s San Quentin Prison. Convicted of killing Douglas and Peggy Ryen, their ten-year-old daughter and 11-year-old neighbor, he has maintained his innocence for 30 years. He requested additional DNA testing to prove his innocence, believing police framed him. He asked for approval for further DNA testing, but Kamala Harris’s office did not take the case. She has since changed her views and has appealed to the governor to allow the DNA test.
Similarly, in the case of George Gage, who is also in San Quentin serving 70 years for sex abuse crimes, he has also requested a review of his case. At the time, he was an electrician with no previous criminal history or record. He was accused and convicted of the sexual abuse of his stepdaughter. He has fought to have exculpatory evidence introduced that states the stepdaughter, a key witness in the case, was a “pathological liar,” as said by her mother.
In contrast, Kamala Harris also made great strides in introducing initiatives to reduce mass incarnation rates and improve police relations. One of her most successful initiatives was the “Back on Track” initiative, which offered programs and education to reduce recidivism rates with nonviolent offenders. She also implemented new law enforcement training, called Principled Policing: Procedural Justice & Implicit Bias. Under her term, California also became the first agency to adopt a body camera program, although Harris did not support mandating them for all police officers. She also launched a criminal justice open database called “OpenJustice” in 2015, a database that allowed public access to crime statistics, including the use of force, collected by the state.
Her Record as State Senator
As Senator, Kamala Harris began shifting her ideals, moving from more centrist on law enforcement matters and criminal justice to more liberal. Since her election to the US Senate, she has co-sponsored several bills suggesting a more liberal ideology concerning gun control, police misconduct, criminal and racial justice.
She has repeatedly been at odds with the current administration, speaking in direct opposition to his cabinet picks, supreme court nominations, and executive orders. She is a member of the Budget Committee, Homeland Security Committee, Intelligence Committee, and Judiciary Committee.
She has recently introduced legislation to revamp the bail system and supported federal reviews of recent police shootings. Kamala has co-sponsored the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, a reform bill that would end the use of no-knock warrants, make lynching a federal crime, ban chokeholds, limit “qualified immunity” for officers, and create a national misconduct registry.
It remains to be seen if voters will choose to judge Kamala Harris on her past or present. Looking and studying her record over her career, she has evolved in her ideas and principles, which comes with growth and experience. A fact that voters should take into account when they head into the voting booth this November.
Danielle Sanders is a writer and journalist living in Chicago. Find her on social media @daniesandersofficial.
Reprinted from the Chicago Defender