The Zodiac killer, the Manson family, the Hillside Stranglers, the Night Stalker and the Golden State Killer all terrorized California. Starting in the 1960s, one lurid murder after another fed public perceptions that crime in California was spiraling out of control. Fear and outrage spawned a raft of harsh sentencing laws that drove a surge in the state’s prison population over 30 years, beginning in the 1970s. Under both Republicans and Democrats — including Kamala Harris, who became a prosecutor in 1990 — a tough-on-crime political culture flourished in California, and African Americans were hit hardest: Their incarceration rate remains more than five times their share of California’s population, reports the Los Angeles Times. Only recently has the state begun shedding its lock-’em-up mind-set.
In the 2020 presidential race, the disproportionate imprisonment of African- American men is posing an especially big challenge for Harris, California’s first black U.S. senator. She is counting on strong support from African Americans. But many black voters are wary of her 27 years as a prosecutor enforcing laws that sent African Americans to prison. Often left unsaid is that Harris, a former state attorney general and San Francisco district attorney, did not play a role in passing those laws. Still, her home state’s high rate of incarcerating people of color goes a long way in explaining the trouble she has had selling her candidacy to black voters nationwide. In California and many other states, racial disparities in imprisonment have intensified resentments of what many see as deeply ingrained discrimination in the criminal justice system. In her campaign, Harris has vowed to relieve mass incarceration and correct racial inequities in the justice system. Critics fault her for working to uphold California’s death penalty and for her threats to jail parents of chronically truant schoolchildren.