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In Pitch For President, Sen. Kamala Harris Focuses On Criminal Justice, Inequality

Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, says she was "born realizing the flaws in the criminal justice system." The California Democrat is not only seeking to become the first woman to be president, but the first black woman.
Olivia Sun
Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, says she was "born realizing the flaws in the criminal justice system." The California Democrat is not only seeking to become the first woman to be president, but the first black woman.

Updated at 2:46 p.m. ET

California Sen. Kamala Harris says she was bent toward a career fighting for civil rights almost since birth.

The Democrat is the daughter of an Indian mother and a Jamaican father who met at the University of California, Berkeley, and were active in the movement during the 1960s.

"I was born realizing the flaws in the criminal justice system," she told NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Inspired by Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to sit on the nation's highest court, she pursued a career in law to help right the wrongs she saw. That ambition would eventually take her from the San Francisco district attorney's office to the California attorney general's office to the Senate. Now she hopes it will take her to the White House. She's seeking to not only become the first woman to be president, but the first black woman.

Addressing inequality is a top priority for her. That includes her LIFT the Middle Class Act, a tax cut plan that would give families making less than $100,000 annually a credit of up to $500 a month, saying that "when we lift up the economic status of families, neighborhoods thrive, society thrives. All of us benefit." She is also taking on the controversial idea of reparations, which would provide a form of compensation to those harmed by past discrimination, such as slavery and Jim Crow.

Harris is the second 2020 presidential candidate NPR's Morning Edition has interviewed for its Opening Arguments conversations exploring presidential hopefuls' central messages. The first was Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey.

Inskeep interviewed Harris about her time as California attorney general, her views on immigration, criminal justice issues and more.

On immigration policy and enforcement

"Now let me tell you again about my background as a prosecutor. That includes having sat down with children who have dealt with the worst of crimes that you can imagine and understanding that you can never prove their cases until you spend a significant amount of time with them, so that they trust you as an adult [whom] they don't know to tell their story, OK? People in Washington were saying, 'Expedite these cases, get them done in two weeks.' For children who — I will never forget the images — who were sitting on a chair, their feet were dangling. That's how small they were. And we were going to expedite these cases to have them tell a perfect stranger in a language or a dialect they don't speak about the trauma that they were experiencing in their home country, which required them to seek refuge in ours. ...

"In fact, my first bill in the United States Senate was Access to Counsel Act to ensure that none of the people — and then that was also the Muslim refugees after the Muslim ban — to make sure that nobody would be denied access to counsel when they're going through these hearings around refugee status and around asylum. ...

"I disagree with any policy that would turn America's back on people who are fleeing harm. I frankly believe that it is contrary to everything that we have symbolically and actually said we stand for. And so I would not enforce a law that would reject people and turn them away without giving them a fair and due process to determine if we should give them asylum and refuge."

Harris draws directly on her personal experiences in California in explaining her approach to immigration. Her focus contrasts with the criminality often emphasized by President Trump. She told NPR, for example, about children she met on a bus in Marietta, Calif. — unaccompanied minors who had been sent by their parents away from high-crime areas in Central America, who were being "exposed to unknown perils, [but] their parents decided that was better than them staying where they were. So that tells you how bad it was where they were."

Her use of the phrase "would not enforce a law" is prime for Republican criticism. Yet immigrant rights advocates have argued the administration's policies violate international human rights law, including a program that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their assigned court dates in the U.S.

On reparations as a health issue

"If we start to examine what have been the outcomes of the history of slavery and legal segregation and discrimination, you can look at the fact — and anyone can tell you who's a mental health specialist — that when people have experienced trauma, and it has been undiagnosed and untreated, you will see certain public health outcomes. And so if you recognize the trauma that existed, and we want to end what are avoidable health outcomes, you need to put resources — and direct resources, extra resources — into those communities that have experienced that trauma. ...

"The term 'reparations,' it means different things to different people. But what I mean by it is that we need to study the effects of generations of discrimination and institutional racism and determine what have been ... the consequences and what can be done in terms of intervention to correct course."

The issue of reparations is one that Democratic candidates have embraced so far this cycle, generally pitching policies that aim to address economic inequality. In this interview, though, Harris emphasizes a disparity in health outcomes that she attributes to "environmental" rather than genetic factors.

"It is centuries of slavery — violence associated with slavery," Harris said. "There was never any real intervention to break up what had been generations of people experiencing the highest forms of trauma, and trauma undiagnosed and untreated leads to physiological outcomes."

On abolishing the death penalty at the federal level

Inskeep: Is there a federal equivalent [to California's moratorium on the death penalty] that you would do? Federal executions, of course, are quite rare.
Harris: Yes, I think that there should be.
Inskeep: A moratorium, an end.
Harris: Yes I do, I do believe that.
Harris: No one would be executed if you were president of the United States, for any crime.
Harris: Correct, correct.
Inskeep: Not even, I don't know, treason.
Harris: Not in the United States, no.

Harris here takes a page from Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who recently announced a moratorium on the death penalty in his state, saying it was a "personal" and "moral" issue for him. Harris takes Newsom's decision a step further by applying it to the whole country, telling Inskeep that if she were president, no one would be executed in the U.S. for any crime — not even treason.

She adds, though, "I absolutely and strongly believe there should be serious and swift consequence when one human being kills another human being. ... I am unequivocal in that belief. So let's be very clear about that. There should be justice."

The former California attorney general often touts her prosecutorial background as an asset, which could appeal to independents, but she's already faced backlash from some within the Democratic Party about her record. An analysis from Vox found that while she did support programs helping people find jobs instead of sending them to prison, she "also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California's death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers' racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings."

She tells NPR that it's a "false choice" to suggest that someone is either tough on crime or soft on crime. Instead, she argues, people should be "smart on crime," pointing to public health as a model.

"If you want to deal with an epidemic — crime or health — the smartest and most effective and cheapest way to deal with it is prevention first," she says. "If you're dealing with it in the emergency room or the prison system, it is too late and it is too expensive. We have to be smart on crime."

On threatening to prosecute parents for their children's truancy in California

"So I decided to take this issue on from a perspective of not wanting to have to prosecute those kids later in their life. So the issue that I took on it was to put a spotlight of your public safety on the issue of the education of these children, to hopefully get you to prioritize their education and to say, 'Let's put all the resources possible into making sure that they are in school.' And I'll tell you frankly the other reason was to put a spotlight on the fact that the school districts and the people who had a responsibility to make sure these kids weren't getting all of the resources they needed, to put a spotlight on the fact that that wasn't happening and it needed to happen.

"And as a result of our initiative, which never resulted in any parent going to jail — never — because that was never the goal, we improved attendance by over 30 percent. ... And it was because we got more services for these kids, and we put a spotlight on the fact that transportation was a big issue for some parents — just getting their child to school. We learned that, you know, if a parent is working two jobs and they've got a 7-year-old and then the 2-year-old gets sick, they might say to the 7-year-old, 'Stay home and take care of the 2-year-old,' because having child care, you know, and paying for that extra day is going to be too difficult. It was things like that. ...

"Nobody went to jail, and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of families went through our program, which was a program of getting greater resources to them so the child could be in school every day. The goal was for these children to be in school every day. The youngest of our children, who were missing critical days of their education that they could never make up. That was always the goal, and that was the goal that we achieved."

This is another part of Harris's record as California attorney general that recently came under scrutiny after a video surfaced of her defending her decision to crack down on truancy.

"I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime," she says in the 2010 video. "So I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy."

In her interview with Inskeep, Harris tries to put that decision in context, making the argument that her crackdown actually highlighted the problem of child care for many parents and that they were able to access resources to help them meet their needs.

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Jessica Taylor
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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