SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — At Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential candidates’ debate, congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) took aim at California Sen. Kamala Harris’ record as California’s attorney general.
“There are too many examples to cite,” began Gabbard. “But [Harris] put over fifteen hundred people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana. She blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. She kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. And she fought to keep a cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way.”
There’s a lot to unpack there but it’s worth a look at the accuracy of Gabbard’s statements.
Harris “put over fifteen hundred people in jail for marijuana violations”
As attorney general, Kamala Harris would not have personally prosecuted drug cases. Local district attorneys would generally prosecute such cases so to say Harris “put … people in jail” as state attorney general is not accurate.
This past February, the Washington Free Beacon reported that data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation showed, “at least 1,560 people were sent to state prisons for marijuana-related offenses between 2011 and 2016.”
KPIX has reached out to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for offender data between 2011 and 2016 but has not yet received a response.
Harris “then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana”
In a radio interview in February of this year, Harris did admit to smoking marijuana and did laugh about it. (appears at about 36:33 in YouTube clip). Note that she was not laughing about the number of people in prison on marijuana-related offenses.
Harris “blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so”
While Gabbard did not specify the case to which she was referring, most assume it is that of Kevin Cooper. He is on death row for a 1983 murder and has maintained his innocence for decades. His attorneys have argued that several items related to the murder should be subject to advanced DNA testing. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof wrote: “As state attorney general, Kamala Harris refused to allow this advanced DNA testing and showed no interest in the case (on Friday, after the online publication of this column, Sen. Harris called me to say ‘I feel awful about this’ and put out a statement saying: ‘As a firm believer in DNA testing, I hope the governor and the state will allow for such testing in the case of Kevin Cooper.’)”
In December of last year, former Gov. Jerry Brown ordered advanced DNA testing on a limited number of items. Then, in February, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an order for more items to be tested. We do not yet know the results of that testing.
To bring it back to Gabbard’s statement, while Harris did block advanced DNA testing in the Cooper case, we do not yet have the results so we do not know whether Cooper is innocent and will be freed from death row. Further, it was governors Brown and Newsom who ordered the testing, not a court.
Harris “kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California”
The 2014 incident to which this refers was a fight over the early release of prisoners not holding past their sentence.
After California was ordered to reduce the population of overcrowded prisons, the state was sued by plaintiffs who claimed it was slow-walking the release of prisoners. At the time, the state encouraged certain “minimum custody” prisoners to help fight wildfires by offering them two years credit for every year served (2-for-1 program).
Plaintiffs in the case, Plata v. Brown, wanted all minimum-custody inmates to be granted the 2-for-1 program, including people who performed less-dangerous, non-fire labor.
Attorneys for attorney general Harris argued, among other things, that expanding the 2-for-1 program would remove the incentive to join the fire teams: “Extending 2-for-1 credits to all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation — a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought.”
The AG’s office also argued that granting 2-for-1 early release to the non-fire laborers “would result in higher turnover [of those workers] and an even greater demand for minimum-custody inmates [forcing the state] to draw down its fire camp population to fill these vital … positions.” [See PDF]
The L.A. Times reported on the arguments and Harris claimed to be “shocked” at the news.
Later she said, “The way that argument played out in court does not reflect my priorities.”
The court ordered the parties to negotiate and, about a month after Harris was apparently made aware of her office’s arguments, the state agreed to give 2-for-1 credits to all minimum-custody prisoners who have not committed a violent crime and do not have a “prior strike” enhancement.
Harris “fought to keep a cash bail system in place that impacts poor people in the worst kind of way”
As San Francisco D.A., Harris supported increasing bail amounts for people arrested for gun violence.
In 2016, Gary Welchen sued Harris alleging the state’s cash bail system is unconstitutional, calling it “wealth-based detention.”
According to the complaint, “Defendant Kamala Harris, in her official capacity as California attorney general, violates plaintiffs’ rights by requiring defendant County of Sacramento to adopt a bail schedule that results in detaining [a person] solely because they cannot afford to pay money bail.”
Harris’ office defended the cash bail law as constitutional. The case is still open and being defended by Harris’ successor, current California attorney general Xavier Becerra.
In 2017, Harris joined with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul to introduce legislation to “reform or replace the practice of money bail.”