A Problem for Kamala Harris: Can a Prosecutor Become President in the Age of Black Lives Matter?

Briahna Gray
January 20 2019, 5:00 a.m.


The regressive reality of what prosecutors do is proving difficult for the senator and likely presidential candidate to rationalize.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 15: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) listens to testimony from U.S. Attorney General nominee William Barr during his confirmation hearing January 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. Barr, who previously served as Attorney General under President George H. W. Bush, was confronted by senators about his views on the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert Mueller. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens to testimony from U.S. attorney general nominee William Barr during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 15, 2019 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

KAMALA HARRIS HAS a prosecutor problem.

She’s running for president as a progressive, but as attorney general of California, she criminalized truancy — making it a crime for kids to be late for school and dragging into the criminal justice system even more disproportionately low-income, predominantly black and Latino families. She’s overlooked the misconduct of her prosecutors and fought to uphold their wrongfully secured convictions. She defended California’s choice to deny gender reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate, and in 2014, she appealed a federal judge’s holding that the death penalty was unconstitutional.

The list goes on and on. But in some ways, the details don’t matter. The problem isn’t that Harris was an especially bad prosecutor. She made positive contributions as well, encouraging education and re-entry programs for ex-offenders, for instance. The problem, more precisely, is that she was ever a prosecutor at all.

To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system. As Paul Butler, former prosecutor and author of “Chokehold: Policing Black Men,” told The Guardian, “as a lawyer who went to law school with a goal of helping black people and using my legal skills to make things better, the realization that the law itself was a mechanism to keep African-American people down was frightening.” He added, “Lawyers are competitive and ambitious, and the way that manifests itself in a prosecutor’s office is you want to get tough sentences. I got caught up in that world. You feel like you’re doing the Lord’s work — you tell yourselves that you’re helping the community.” But, he vividly recalls, the expectation is far from reality.

To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system.

Compare his self-reflection with Harris’s reply when asked about her decision to become a prosecutor: “There is a duty and responsibility to be a voice for the most voiceless and vulnerable and to do the work of justice. And that’s the work I wanted to do.”

Harris’s response might be understandable coming from someone with less experience — a layperson, a law student, or even a junior district attorney. But who, especially in the era of Black Lives Matter, would flatly describe the enforcement arm of the criminal justice system as doing “the work of justice”? What person with any experience in criminal court can claim to be an advocate for the “most vulnerable,” without recognizing that the victim in one case is often the defendant in the next — that the issues at play are systemic and that the justice meted out by the court system is a rough one at best? Harris has stayed away from engaging with these deeper questions in interviews. Perhaps because as a prosecutor, she understands that there are no good answers… MORE


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