Kamala Harris' Attorney General Record, Explained

She had a tough job to do.

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(Image credit: Ethan Miller)

Joe Biden has chosen Senator Kamala Harris (opens in new tab) (D-CA) as his running mate for the 2020 election. Last year, Sen. Harris was a frontrunner among the numerous Democratic candidates (opens in new tab) running for president. However, Harris' history as a prosecutor and attorney general in the state of California was a touchy subject and cause for concern long before her presidential campaign, and is expected to be recirculated in the upcoming 2020 presidential and vice presidential debates.

"The concerns are overblown, yes, no question," Harris told CBS News (opens in new tab). But she was unable to escape addressing her controversial history; it took center stage during the second Democratic debates last year. When the topic of criminal justice reform arose, Harris bore the brunt of criticism from her fellow candidates, including Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard.

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Harris has since responded to Gabbard's claims, saying (opens in new tab) Harris “did the work of significantly reforming the criminal justice system of a state of 40 million people. I am proud of making a decision to not just give fancy speeches or be in a legislative body and give speeches on the floor,” she said (opens in new tab). “But actually doing the work of being in the position to use the power that I had to reform a system that is badly in need of reform.”

Clearly, two very different answers.

Now more than ever, Harris will be expected to share her views on criminal justice reform (you can read her full policy on her website here (opens in new tab)) and police brutality in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other Black Americans. So, let's try to clear up this controversy. Here are the important things to know about Kamala Harris' history as attorney general:

Harris served as attorney general twice.

Harris' first go-around was as the district attorney general of San Francisco. Her term lasted seven years, from 2004 to 2011. Then, from 2011 to 2017, she went on to serve the state of California as attorney general before taking on the role of Senator.

The "Back on Track" initiative was one her most successful programs.

As district attorney in 2005, Harris launched an initiative to reduce recidivism among first-time drug-trafficking defendants. The program, known as "Back on Track" (opens in new tab), lasts 12-18 months and provides its participants with a personal responsibility plan (PRP). Their PRP will consist of setting goals around employment, parenting and receiving an education, instead of serving jail time. Participants are also required to serve 220 hours of community service. Graduating from the program requires each participant to find a job, enroll in school full time, and comply with all terms of their PRP.

“Shutting the revolving door of the criminal justice system requires innovative, results-driven policies and initiatives that help offenders get their lives back on track,” Harris said (opens in new tab).

She tackled racial bias and police brutality (kind of).

In 2015, under Harris' jurisdiction as state attorney general, California became the first statewide agency to adopt a body camera program (opens in new tab) and also enforced a "first of its kind" (opens in new tab) law enforcement training. The then-presidential candidate reminded people of her work during one of the debates.

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However, what wasn't mentioned is that wearing the body camera was not mandatory for all local police officers in the state, only those working directly for Harris. According to  (opens in new tab)PBS (opens in new tab), that same year Harris warned against a “one-size-fits-all” solution. “I as a general matter believe that we should invest in the ability of law enforcement leaders in specific regions and with their departments to use [their] discretion to figure out what technology they are going to adopt based on needs that they have and resources they have,” Harris told the Sacramento Bee (opens in new tab).

And the training Harris referred to is known as "Principled Policing: Procedural Justice and Implicit Bias.” (opens in new tab) The course totaled eight hours and consisted of "six areas that focus on policing approaches that emphasize respect, listening, neutrality and trust, while recognizing and addressing implicit biases that can be barriers to these approaches," according to a press release (opens in new tab) from the attorney general's office. According to press release (opens in new tab), a little over 90 applicants from 30 agencies applied for the course.

Prison reform hasn't always been her strong suit.

In 2011, the Supreme Court demanded the state of California reduce its prison population by 33,000 inmates in the next two years due to overpopulation resulting in starvation, inhumane treatment and even death, according to NPR (opens in new tab). However in 2014, according to the LA Times (opens in new tab), federal judges "ordered that all nonviolent second-strike offenders be eligible for parole after serving half their sentence."

As stated by the LA Times, most of those prisoners were working as groundskeepers, janitors and kitchen staff. Harris' lawyers argued in court that releasing them would drastically reduce their prison labor pool (seriously!). However, Harris told BuzzFeed (opens in new tab) that she was "shocked" to hear their defense. "I was very troubled by what I read. I just need to find out what did we actually say in court," she said (opens in new tab).

Her stance on marijuana has evolved.

In 2010, Harris was staunchly opposed to the use of recreational marijuana. “Spending two decades in court rooms, Harris believes that drug selling harms communities,” her then campaign manager Brian Brokaw told Capitol Weekly (opens in new tab). "Harris supports the legal use of medicinal marijuana but does not support anything beyond that.”

In 2015, at the California Democrats Convention (opens in new tab), she called for an end to the federal ban on medical marijuana, but withheld the term legalization. It wasn't until 2018, as Senator, that she co-signed Senator Corey Booker's Marijuana Justice Act.

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“Right now in this country people are being arrested, being prosecuted, and end up spending time in jail or prison all because of their use of a drug that otherwise should be considered legal,” Harris said in a press release (opens in new tab). “Making marijuana legal at the federal level is the smart thing to do, it’s the right thing to do. I know this as a former prosecutor and I know it as a senator.”

The anti-truancy policy she passed had good intentions, but backfired.

In her 2011 inauguration speech, Harris pointed out that in 2010 there were 600,000 truant students in their elementary schools alone. In an effort to remediate this issue, she passed a law (opens in new tab) making it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow their children (kindergarten through eighth grade) to miss more than 10 percent of school days, without an excuse. The parents or guardians of truant children could face a $2000 fine or up to one year in jail. “We are putting parents on notice,” Harris said (opens in new tab) at her 2011 inauguration. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”

However, this policy ended up generalizing the truancy issue, placing blame on parents with circumstances outside their control (opens in new tab). Harris has since apologized for criminalizing parents in a Pod Save America (opens in new tab) interview. "This was never the attention," she said. “I regret that that has happened and the thought that anything I did could have led to that."

Sex workers are wary of her.

In 2016, she was one of the leaders in the downfall of the classified ads website, Backpage.com. In her filings (opens in new tab), she charged the site owners for money laundering, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. A majority of sex workers used the site to find clients who needed an escort, other services, and many of them deemed it was one of the safest options to overall vet new clients. She said recently (opens in new tab) that she has "no regrets" about getting it shut down.

She's recently spoke on matters of decriminalization of sex work, saying she supported the movement, which some have called (opens in new tab) a "massive shift." In an interview with The Root (opens in new tab) last year, she said: "There is an ecosystem around that that includes crimes that harm people, and for those issues, I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be free of criminal prosecution. But when you're talking about consenting adults, we should consider that we can't criminalize consensual behavior."

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Alexis Jones is an assistant editor at Women's Health where she writes across several verticals on WomensHealthmag.com, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness, while also contributing to the print magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, lives in Brooklyn, and proudly detests avocados.