Kamala Harris (AP/Alex Brandon)

2020 Democratic race: Here is the truth about Kamala Harris’ background as a prosecutor

If she wins her party's presidential nomination, she's likely to receive criticism from both the left and the right


Alex Henderson
January 24, 2019 10:12PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.
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No sooner had Sen. Kamala Harris announced that she would be seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination than far-right conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl resorted to racist birtherism and claimed that the California senator was ineligible for the presidency because of her parents’ immigrant backgrounds (Harris’ mother was from India, her father from Jamaica) and because she attended high school in Montreal, Canada. Harris, of course, is perfectly eligible to run for president: she was born in Oakland, California on October 20, 1964 and holds U.S. citizenship—and instead of undermining the laws of the United States, she has devoted much of her time to enforcing them. Harris served as San Francisco’s district attorney from 2004-2011 before becoming California’s state attorney general in 2011.

Here are some facts about Harris’ legal and prosecutorial background.

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1. Harris now supports legalization of recreational marijuana

In new book, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Harris asserts that “we need to legalize marijuana and regulate it—and we need to expunge nonviolent marijuana-related offenses from the records of millions of people who have been arrested and incarcerated so they can get on with their lives.” However, Harris wasn’t always this liberal on marijuana laws. In 2014, when she sought reelection as California’s attorney general, Harris distanced herself from Republican opponent Ronald Gold’s support for legalization. And in 2016, she didn’t support California’s Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana use for California residents who are 21 or older.

2. Harris has a long history of opposing the death penalty

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If Harris does win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 and defeats all the other candidates—who could range from Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Sen. Bernie Sanders if he decides to run—one sensitive issue that would be sure to come up in debates with President Donald Trump is the death penalty. Trump is a staunch supporter of capital punishment, while Harris has a long history of opposing it. Back in 2004, when she was San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris butted heads with fellow Democrats—including Sen. Dianne Feinstein—over the killing of police officer Isaac Espinoza. Harris refused to seek the death penalty for David Hill, the man convicted of Espinoza’s murder—while Feinstein wanted him executed.

3. Harris had high conviction rates during her years as San Francisco DA

In a Trump/Harris battle in 2020, Trump would probably bring up Espinoza in order to deceptively paint Harris as soft on cop killers. But Harris’ office prosecuted Hill aggressively, and he was sentenced to life in prison. Harris isn’t draconian enough for GOP tastes, but she had high conviction rates during her years as a prosecutor. Under Harris, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office saw its overall conviction rates increase by 15%.

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4. Harris was considered for U.S. attorney general in 2014

When Eric Holder, President Barack Obama’s first U.S. attorney general, announced that he was resigning in 2014, Harris was one of the people mentioned as a possible replacement (others ranged from former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to federal prosecutor Preet Bharara). But Harris released an official statement saying that while she was “honored to even be mentioned,” she planned to “continue my work for the people of California as attorney general.”

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5. Criticism of Harris’ legal history comes from the left as well as the right

If Harris receives the Democratic presidential nomination next year, she is likely to receive criticism from both the left and the right. Republicans—at least the non-libertarian ones—will bring up her opposition to the death penalty, while some on the left are likely to argue that in the past, she wasn’t proactive enough on criminal justice reform. In a January 17 op-ed for the New York Times, law professor Lara Bazelon wrote, “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.”


Alex Henderson

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