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Harris Under Scrutiny for Tough-on-Crime Prosecutor Past

FILE - U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaks at a rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in her hometown of Oakland, California, Jan. 27, 2019.
FILE - U.S. Senator Kamala Harris speaks at a rally at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in her hometown of Oakland, California, Jan. 27, 2019.

While many will hail the choice of Kamala Harris as Joe Biden's running mate, the U.S. senator from California has come under tough criticism — but also been praised — over her past work as a top prosecutor.

Harris, the first woman and the first Black attorney general in the history of the Golden State as well as the first woman of color on a major U.S. presidential ticket, portrayed herself as a progressive reformer during her own presidential bid, but some have cast doubts on that claim.

"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," law professor Lara Bazelon wrote last year.

"Harris turned legal technicalities into weapons so she could cement injustices," Bazelon, a former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times.

Before serving as attorney general, the 55-year-old Harris was the district attorney in San Francisco. She was elected to the Senate in 2016.

"Kamala Harris had a reputation in California as a prosecutor and attorney general who waited rather than led, who moved on controversial issues only once she saw what was politically viable," the daily Sacramento Bee wrote in a June editorial.

Police brutality

As concerns police brutality — a subject very much in the news following the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose killing at the hands of police in May sparked nationwide protests — Harris has also been criticized for largely failing to intervene in cases involving police violence.

While serving as attorney general in 2016, for example, she opposed a bill to investigate deadly police shootings following the death of a stabbing suspect — shot 21 times by police — that sparked huge protests.

Harris, who is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father, has also come under fierce criticism for pushing legislation that would punish parents in California for their children's truancy.

Pushing for change

But despite her controversial record on criminal justice, Harris has also been lauded for fighting for progressive change.

Her most successful program, called "Back on Track," called for nonviolent first-time drug offenders to avoid jail by getting a high school diploma.

She also initiated a project for anti-bias training for law enforcement agencies throughout California.

But arguably her biggest achievement in the eyes of civil rights activists and police was Open Justice, an online portal that made a wide range of criminal justice data available to the public, including the number of deaths and injuries in police custody.

Many today are pushing back against claims that she did not go far enough in pushing for criminal justice reform, arguing she was being judged by unfair standards.

"I am a public defender, I work day and night fighting for justice in San Francisco ... and the fact is that she did implement very progressive programs, period, end of story," said Niki Solis, who faced Harris many times in court when she was district attorney.

Solis told AFP that harsh criticism of Harris to the effect that marijuana prosecutions under her tenure were too harsh was also absurd, considering the statistical data that speaks otherwise.

"She had very liberal, progressive policies regarding marijuana, everybody knows it," she said.

Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, stressed that in looking at Harris' tenure as attorney general, one must take into account that she was a prosecutor applying the law, rather than a legislator.

"As attorney general of the state of California, she had to defend laws in court whether or not she agreed with them," Pitney said. "So to that extent, I think the criticism is misplaced."

He said that, if anything, Harris's justice record should serve her well as the vice presidential pick.

"By the standards of California progressives, pretty much nobody can be progressive enough and if progressives are criticizing her for not being overly liberal as a prosecutor, that's an asset in a general election campaign," he said.

Pitney added that in the run-up to the November vote, conservatives will likely hit out at her as being too liberal.

"Their criticism will enable her to say 'look at all these progressives, they are criticizing me for being too conservative. I must be just in the right place.'"