Harris ‘Tough on Crime’ Justice Record Under Spotlight During VP Debate

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Photo by Davey D. Cook via Flickr

Vice President Mike Pence squares off tonight with Sen. Kamala Harris in a debate that’s likely to contain flashpoints on criminal justice in the midst of a nationwide push for reforms.  

While the Vice Presidential debate on the University of Utah Campus in Salt Lake City is likely to keep the coronavirus pandemic in the center stage, both candidates are expected to target one another’s track record on criminal justice reform, and debate the current state of unrest in America. 

In past debates, Harris has characterized herself as a “reformer” — but many have criticized her  “tough on crime” policies she embraced while a prosecutor, district attorney, and state attorney general, Vox news details. 

A close examination of Harris’s record shows that it’s riddled with “contradictions,” Vox characterizes. 

During a Democratic Debate in 2019, there were a few viral moments where opposing Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard took jabs at Harris’s record, pointing out how Harris had over 1,000 people in jail for marijuana violations but allegedly laughed when asked if she had ever smoked weed herself, CNN reported.

Harris also embraced a “tough” policy while in the district attorney’s office, like an anti-truancy program that “targeted parents of kids who skipped school and threatened them with prosecution and punishment to push them to get their children to class.”

Many advocates saw this as being insensitive to the struggles of working and lower-income parents. 

Most commonly cited in Harris’s record as a stain on justice, her office was caught up in a 2010 scandal where a police crime-lab technician had been skimming drugs — when someone takes a portion of the drug for themselves — and had a past conviction for domestic violence.

It’s unclear whether the technician was taking drugs from evidence in cases, the New York Times detailed, but a judge found that her office had “failed to disclose the information to defense lawyers, as required.” 

Harris has maintained that she only learned about the crime-lab problems when the news became public.

While this was one isolated incident, many believe Harris tried to bury the scandal.  

To that end, Harris’s supporters argue that these criticisms don’t look at the big picture, saying that at the time she was “ahead of the country and her party” by spearheading prison diversion programs as a district attorney. 

“Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability,” Lily Adams, a spokesperson for Harris at the time, previously told Vox.

Parts of her record match his sentiment. 

In 2004, as a district attorney of San Francisco, Harris refused to seek the death penalty against Isaac Espinoza, a man convicted of shooting a police officer. 

Harris also had a successful program, called “Back on Track,” which allowed first-time drug offenders — including dealers — to get a high school diploma and a job instead of prison time, Vox outlines. 

As police chief of East Palo Alto, Ronald Davis studied Harris’s program. 

“Re-entry was not a prevailing thought in law enforcement,” Davis told the New York Times in his discussion about the program. “She said this is a unique opportunity to reduce recidivism.”

Harris, like Biden, has expressed interest in wanting to see law enforcement enact new reforms that include prioritizing rehabilitation instead of imprisonment for drug and low-level offenses.

She also wants to decriminalize marijuana and expunge related convictions, all while ending the cash bail system and use of private prisons, an analysis of her platform when she ran for the Democratic Presidential nominee found. 

Harris has also expressed support for redirecting police funding as a nod to the recent protesters calls for systematic change in the justice system. 

When asked about her own career, Harris is quoted saying earlier this year, “I’m going to try and go inside the system, where I don’t have to ask permission to change what needs to be changed.”

Mike Pence’s Positions

As a former attorney, U.S. congressman and governor of Indiana from 2013 to 2017, Michael Pence has intimately interacted with the criminal justice system. However, since Pence has stayed relatively out of the headlines for most of President Trump’s term, his positions appear relatively straightforward.

Pence has been consistently outspoken about supporting Blue Lives Matter and painting Democrats as “enemies of the police,” Politifact quoted.  

During a recent visit with the Arizona Police Association, Pence accused Biden and other Democrats of not supporting law enforcement, saying, “Joe Biden and the radical left say that we have to choose between supporting our police or supporting all the families of our communities.”

Pence concluded, “The American people know we don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement and supporting our African American neighbors. We have done both. We can do both.”

Pence has refused to say “Black Lives Matter” because he believes the leadership of the BLM movement is pushing a “radical-left agenda.”

This matters to many, considering that “67 percent of the American public say they support the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of mass protests over George Floyd’s killing, with 38 percent of U.S. adults saying they strongly support it,” according to Pew. Yet the phrase “Black lives matter” has become politically sensitive for many Republicans, Axios news details.

In a recent analysis of Pence’s 2020 Republican National Convention speech, Pence is in favor of police officers being required to wear body cameras, allowing convicted felons to have the right to vote, and that prisons should ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. 

To that end, Pence signed a bill to limit public access to police body camera footage in 2016.

Pence also voted against an eventually passed 2009 bill that expanded the definition of hate crimes to include race, religion, gender, disability, and sexual orientation, while strengthening enforcement of hate crime laws. 

Pence also supports the death penalty, saying in 2014, “I believe justice demands it in our most heinous cases.”

In 2016, when asked about restoring “law and order” to our country then, Pence said, “Trump and I are going to make sure that law enforcement have the resources and the tools to be able to really restore law and order to the cities and communities in this nation.” 

Pence also said that he will “stand with those who stand on the thin blue line of law enforcement in America.” 

While this was said in context before President Trump’s current time in office, the quote is still relevant today and will surely be relevant in tonight’s debate. 

Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.

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