Why is California so Progressive? Thank Kamala Harris

An older version of this post was published during the Democratic Presidential Primary.

Image from Kamalaharris.org

Earlier in the week we talked about the five most interesting votes Kamala Harris has made in her first term as senator. Now we’re taking a look back into Harris’s earlier career at five initiatives she was responsible for creating during her time as District Attorney of San Francisco & Attorney General for California.

1. Helped Reform California’s Justice Department

After winning re-election for Attorney General in 2014, Harris called for a 90 day review into the Department of Justice’s training on racial bias and force. This review lead to a few changes within the department including the first certified implicit bias training for officers in the country, plans to increase recruitment of diverse special agents, increased transparency after officer-involved-shootings, and the addition of body cameras.

“We must acknowledge that too many have felt the sting of injustice. That is why, as a first step, I have directed my Division of Law Enforcement to present to me within 90 days a complete review of our special agent training on implicit bias and use of force.” — Harris, Inaugural Address (2015)

Many of these efforts mirrored the findings of the U.S. Department of Justice after they released their report on the Ferguson Police Department in March of 2015.

2. Fought to Change California’s Three Strike Laws

In the early 2000s in California, a person could find themselves in prison for quite awhile for relatively minor crimes because of the three strikes law. While it was implemented differently across different states, the general idea was that a person who committed three serious crimes would serve a much harsher penalty after the third one than they would have otherwise. Three strikes and a person could see anywhere between 25 years to life in prison.

The three strikes law was especially harsh in California for a few reasons. For instance, misdemeanors often counted towards a person’s three strikes, people were often charged twice for the same crime, and all drug possession charges were considered felonies in the state, meaning automatic strikes.

As Attorney General of San Francisco, Kamala Harris pushed the state on a path to easing up on the three strikes rule. She did this by refusing to prosecute individuals for life sentences unless their third crime was considered serious or violent. By 2012, the state as a whole voted for this same change through a referendum.

(It’s worth noting that this policy maintained that a person in this situation would still be sentenced for life if one of their previous convictions was for murder, rape, or child molestation.)

3. Created a First of its Kind Program to Help Prisoners Re-enter Society

In 2005, Harris’s SF District Attorney began a recidivism program called Back on Track.

This program took people between the ages of 18–30 who were facing their first felony for a low-level drug offense. These people would be put through a 12–18 month program where they completed 220 hours of community service, met regularly with a case manager and reentry court, and set goals related to employment and education. If they were able to find employment and enroll into school full time on top of the community service, the court would dismiss their original charge, leaving the graduate with a clean record.

A review of the program found that less than 10% of graduates of the program ended up back in jail, compared to the typical California rate of 53%. Back on Track also saved money, with a cost of $5000 per participant, as opposed to the usual $10,000 cost of court proceedings plus the $50,000 per year it costs to house someone in prison.

4. Began a LGBT Hate Crime Unit in San Francisco

This group aimed to streamline the process of investigations and conviction of hate crimes in the area, and the city of San Francisco saw a slight decrease in hate crimes following the creation of the unit.

Harris and Governor Jerry Brown also refused to defend the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2013. Their refusal to enforce the proposition eventually lead to a series of court trials. The Northern District Court of California declared the proposition unconstitutional, then the 9th Circuit affirmed the decision. In Hollingsworth v. Perry,the Supreme Court ruled that the petitioners who wanted the proposition to be enforced did not have standing to take the issue to court, citing the Harris/Brown’s decision in the court opinion.

Harris also lobbied to end the “gay panic” defense in the state, a rare court defense in which a person attempts to use their sudden learning of someone’s sexuality as a valid legal excuse for why they attacked that person. California, Illinois and a handful of other states have since eliminated the defense.

5. Secured $26 Billion for California Homeowners after the Housing Crash

Along with the other attorney generals throughout the country, Kamala Harris was tasked with negotiating a settlement with the banks who were responsible with lending out faulty home loans.

At one point during these talks, Harris took the risky move of walking away from the negotiations leaving a smaller settlement offer on the table. Eventually, however, Harris secured $26 billion from the banks including $12 billion in guaranteed debt reduction for Californians. Harris’s role was especially significant because of her close ties to the Obama White House and the fact that 2 million of the 11 million people who were upside down on their mortgage lived in California.

It’s helpful, I think, to sometimes take a step away from day-to-day politics and figure out what actual real life changes a politician has been responsible for creating in public life.

On that note, it’s worth remembering that as recently as the early 2000s, California was anything but a liberal state. Once the home of Ronald Reagan and the modern intellectual birthplace of Breitbart, the largest state in the country has a complex history with conservatism.

And much of the credit for California’s place at the mantle of progressive America belongs to Kamala Harris.

Hi there. I write about public policy, politics, the presidency, and culture.

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