Staff Columnist

What Iowa could learn from Kamala Harris about reducing prison populations

California made progress thanks to policies Harris didn't support

Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as she answers a
Vice President Mike Pence looks at Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as she answers a question during the vice presidential debate Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2020, at Kingsbury Hall on the campus of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, Pool)

Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris played up the “progressive prosecutor” myth during her debate last week with Vice President Mike Pence. She touted her experience as California attorney general — running the second-largest justice system in the country, trailing only the U.S. Department of Justice — as if locking people up is good executive experience.

Iowa’s prisons are overpopulated, still more than 6 percent over capacity even amid pandemic-related diversion measures. Iowa has some of the nation’s most extreme drug prohibition laws, and our state ranks among the worst on racial disparities in law enforcement.

A smart-on-crime agenda from a presidential administration could spur badly needed changes to Iowa’s laws and programs. But if you’re looking for a good model, the Harris agenda isn’t it.

“Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent.”

- Lara Bazelon, University of San Francisco law professor

New York Times, Jan. 17, 2019

California reduced its prison population during Harris’ tenure as attorney general, but that trend was already in motion when she took office, under a federal court order. A large share of the reduction was caused by shuffling inmates around to different facilities. Much of the rest is attributable to bills and ballot propositions Harris declined to publicly take positions on.

As a prosecutor, Harris did not simply carry out the law as written. She was accused of fighting to uphold wrongful convictions and wrongly withhold evidence. On policy issues, Harris was usually quiet or on the wrong side. In recent years as a national politician, she has made a habit of taking credit for good ideas she previously opposed.

The effect of Harris’ stances is to put more people in jails and prisons. California made progress on incarceration despite her work, not because of it.

If you don’t believe me, ask some Californians.

The platform Harris presented last week included banning police chokeholds, eliminating cash bail and decriminalizing marijuana. California has implemented all of those, no thanks to Harris.

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“But Harris did not have a hand in these initiatives — and in some cases she actively opposed the changes,” wrote Ben Christopher, a reporter at Cal Matters, a nonprofit investigative news outlet in Harris’ home state.

In a New York Times guest column about Harris’ defense of wrongful convictions, University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon wrote in 2019, “Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent.”

On Harris’ reluctance to address police shootings, racial justice organizer Phelicia Jones told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2016, “You have turned your back on the people who got you to where you are,” referring to Harris.

Harris was a prosecutor, and prosecutors are going to prosecute. She first took office as San Francisco district attorney in 2004. She has a long record, and people are allowed to change their minds.

But on the debate stage last week, Harris didn’t tell us how she evolved. She defended her record as a law enforcer at a time of growing skepticism of the whole system.

It’s true, as Harris’ running mate Joe Biden told donors last year, “Nothing would fundamentally change.”

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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