Kamala Harris released an ambitious criminal-justice and public safety reform plan on Monday morning, presenting a platform that represents how far her politics on her area of greatest expertise have progressed leftward and away from the “tough on crime” approach she took during her long tenure as a prosecutor in California.
The plan outlines a four-pronged approach to systemic problems within criminal justice on the federal, state, and local levels: end mass incarceration, law enforcement reform, ending the criminalization of poverty and dehumanization of prisoners, and increasing the protection of victims’ rights. Among her proposals are several top progressive priorities, including the investment of $1 billion to allow states to clear their rape kit backlogs, ending money bail, revising civil forfeiture laws, and increasing data collection for police departments.
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Two parts of the proposal stand out as particularly bold. Harris wants to create a Bureau of Children and Family Justice, an entity that is aimed at both protecting children stuck in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems and preventing other kids from entering those systems in the first place. Even more boldly, Harris wants to work with Congress, as President, to create a National Police Systems Review Board, a federal entity that “would collect data and review police shootings and other cases of severe police misconduct, and work to issue recommendations and implement safety standards” based upon those investigations.
The comprehensive plan, posted Monday morning on her campaign website, was paired with an interview with the New York Times and a 30-minute roundtable discussion with notable black experts and journalists on the topic, including social-justice advocate Jamira Burley, political strategist and podcast host Angela Rye, The Center for Policing Equity’s Philip Atiba Goff, and Salon editor-at-large D. Watkins. Rye’s one-on-one interview with Harris will be published later on Monday.
Harris is, of course, the only black woman in the Democratic primary field. Black women have proven to be the most loyal and consistent voting bloc in the Democratic Party. It turns out that criminal justice and policing reform are the top issues that they care about this election season, per a new Essence survey of 1,068 black female voters. So it makes good political sense for Harris to take her biggest policy swing yet, right in her strike zone.
I’d argue that none of the top-tier presidential candidates may understand the criminal justice system as intimately as Harris. Certainly none of them have been identified as closely with it, due to her many years as both San Francisco’s district attorney and California attorney general, and that is much of her own doing. Her campaign has embraced her prosecutorial past, from its “For the People” slogan to her rhetoric about “indicting” President Trump. But as her supporters and critics might both acknowledge, this association has proven thus far at times an asset and, at others, a considerable liability. Harris, the junior senator from California and the state’s former attorney general, currently hovers around fourth in most polls.
The plan represents the most direct response to date to voters who harbor doubts about her “being a cop.” Released three days in advance of the third Democratic primary debate in Houston, it may seek to pre-empt the kind of attacks she faced from Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in the second debate. “The people who suffered under your reign as prosecutor — you owe them an apology,” Gabbard told her at the time. Perhaps this proposal is the first step towards it.
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