An abridged guide to Kamala Harris's history as a prosecutor and public servant
On Tuesday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden announced that California Sen. Kamala Harris would be his pick for vice president. The announcement comes just three months before the general election, at a time of mass income inequality, a global pandemic, and a racial justice uprising.
Harris is said to fill in the gaps of Biden's candidacy and potential executive branch, as she's an accomplished, formidable, young for politics, woman of color. Though she's spent the past four years making national headlines for her service as California's junior senator and later as a presidential candidate herself, there's a lot to be said for how she got to where she is today.
Born in Oakland, California, Harris worked as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney's office in the 1990s, seeking to make changes to the criminal justice system from the inside. Her time in elected office started almost two decades ago, when she was elected in 2003 as San Francisco's district attorney.
San Francisco district attorney, 2004-2011
Harris served as district attorney for San Francisco from 2004 to 2011. During her tenure as the first Indian and Black woman head prosecutor for the city, Harris approached the work from a "progressive" standpoint. She favored prosecutorial and criminal justice reforms at a time when most other states and national politicians touted "tough-on-crime" measures.
In practice, this meant that Harris refused to bring charges against sex workers arrested by San Francisco officers in sting operations, which at the time a local paper wrote would guide prosecutorial decisions around the country. "Harris's decision to refocus the concerns of law enforcement — from moral indignation over lap dancing to the protection of lap dancers — has all but decriminalized prostitution that happens in a private booth at a strip club," SF Weekly wrote.
Additionally, early in her career as San Francisco DA, Harris decided not to bring a death sentence against a man convicted of killing a police officer, as she was opposed to capital punishment. At the time, a majority of Americans supported the death penalty, and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who now serves alongside Harris in the Senate) pressured Harris to seek the death penalty. Later, when Harris ran for California attorney general, the state's police union did not endorse her, likely because she refused the death penalty in 2004.
In 2005, Harris launched Back on Track (BOT), a program aimed at reducing recidivism. The program had strict rules, though: A participant must have pleaded guilty to charges brought against them, completed hundreds of hours of community service, and be enrolled in school or employed. Those on the left largely cited BOT as a failure due to its low enrollment and program completion rates.
California attorney general, 2011-2017
Harris has repeatedly defended her criminal justice record as a series of efforts to reform the system from within. But her track record as a "progressive prosecutor" and later as California's "top cop" — a phrase she used that has come back to haunt her — demonstrates the contradictions of working within a system to change it, as reforms to the criminal justice system need to be made within the scope of the law. For example, even as Harris personally opposed the death penalty as San Francisco's DA, she upheld the death penalty as California attorney general because capital punishment was one of the state's legal tools approved by voters.
Harris replaced Jerry Brown, who ascended to the governor's mansion, as California's attorney general. In the five-plus years Harris served as AG, she called for body camera usage by California Department of Justice officials, though she had opposed body camera usage by San Francisco officers years earlier. She also created the Division of Recidivism Reduction and Reentry and implemented a program similar to BOT, but this time in Los Angeles. By this point in her career, the country had begun to recognize the failures of "tough-on-crime" politics and the horrors of mass incarceration, though Harris was the same as she'd always been: a reformer from the inside.
Harris refused calls from protesters and elected officials to investigate police killings and declined to endorse AB-86, which would have mandated that police killings be investigated by special prosectors. She did start an implicit bias training program for officers, though this kind of reform has broadly been debunked as ineffective.
Perhaps most controversially, Harris in 2010 backed a harsh anti-truancy law that penalized parents if their children routinely missed school, with fines up to $2,000 and, in extreme circumstances, jail time. Harris had long made truancy a focus of her efforts, and she has said the intent of the law was to push parents to make sure their kids went to school, and incentivize schools to provide resources and assistance to families that needed it. But critics say it disproportionately harmed Black and Latino students, criminalized poverty, and in a few select incidents, actually jailed parents. During her presidential campaign, she expressed "regret" that any parents had been sentenced under the law, saying that "never was the intention."
California senator, 2017-present
Harris became a national name in 2016 when she won the Senate seat vacated by Barbara Boxer, becoming California's first Black woman senator.
On a national stage serving the most populous state in the country, Harris tried her hand again at criminal justice reforms — or at least at pursuing less punitive options for holding people to account. She introduced legislation seeking retribution for people who posted nude pictures of ex-partners without their consent — commonly known as "revenge porn" — and she introduced legislation to establish a pilot program for body camera usage by Department of Homeland Security agents. She has also partnered with both progressive senators to provide economic relief during the coronavirus crisis and has signed on to a bill to explore reparations on the federal level.
In several incidents that went viral, she utilized her prosecutor skills in questioning Trump administration appointees on their records, notably grilling Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings to become a Supreme Court justice. She "stumped" current U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr during a Senate hearing, while former Attorney General Jeff Sessions said she was making him "nervous" during a particularly pointed line of questioning. She's become widely known for asking tough questions of those in positions of power.
Her run for president coincided with her time in the Senate, during which she offered much more progressive stances on issues like marijuana legalization than she had in the past. She vowed to decriminalize crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without papers, and she championed the codification of Roe v. Wade, which would ensure that the constitutional right to an abortion would be enshrined in law and make it less vulnerable to changes on the Supreme Court bench, partisanship, or any future conservative presidential administrations.