NEW ORLEANS, LA- Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) knows that there are people in the Black community who are skeptical about her career as a prosecutor but says she doesn’t regret trying to change the system from the inside.
In an exclusive interview with theGrio on Friday at the 2019 Power Rising conference in New Orleans, Sen. Harris was asked to address criticism about the role she played in a flawed criminal justice system, which disproportionately incarcerates Black people.
“I knew how biased and unfair this system can be,” Sen. Harris told theGrio. “It was a very conscious decision for me. ‘Let’s go inside so we can make the decisions.’ That was the very reason I chose to be a prosecutor.
Sen. Harris says she attempted to use her role as District Attorney in San Francisco to be an advocate for Black people who were victims, often overlooked and not taken seriously.
“When I was D.A. there would be black mothers who would come to the front window of the office and would say to the receptionist ‘I want to talk to Kamala. I won’t talk to anybody else but Kamala.”
“It was a very conscious decision for me. ‘Let’s go inside so we can make the decisions.’ That was the very reason I chose to be a prosecutor.”
“I would go and greet them and bring them back to my office, and they would sit in my office right next to me on the couch and cry and talk about how nobody had taken their pain of losing their son seriously.”
Was Kamala Harris a ‘Progressive Prosecutor’?
Critics have opposed Sen. Harris’ claims that she was a ‘progressive prosecutor.’ They cite examples like her support for a truancy bill that would likely negatively impact parents of color and her late support for the legalization of marijuana as problematic.
Sen. Harris says she defends her record, but perhaps would’ve changed one thing:
“Let me also say this: I did not have enough impact,” Sen. Harris told theGrio. “Had I been able to be there longer…Maybe.”
“Let me also say this: I did not have enough impact,” Sen. Harris told theGrio.
“Had I been able to be there longer…Maybe.”
When asked how she would specifically bridge the gap of trust between her and those who are skeptical of her record, Sen. Harris responded:
“I credit in many ways the activism of folks, the activism of folks like the leaders of Black Lives Matter,” says Sen. Harris.
“I’ve never been in a position of believing that the system is applied equally to all people and that it needs reform. It needs reform.”
“That’s why I created one of the first reentry initiatives in the nation [which] focused on in particularly young black and brown men who were arrested for drug sales and got them jobs and counseling. And when I created that initiative people would say to me, ‘Why are you letting people out when you’re supposed to be locking people up?'”
Black prosecutors are a minority within a minority
Sen. Harris broke barriers as the first Black American and woman Attorney General in California’s history. Similarly, in 2017, she became the first Black American senator in California.
According to recent data from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, 95 percent of prosecutors are white. Some criminal justice reformers have pointed to the power they hold to bring charges and negotiate plea deals, as just one reason to advocate for more diversity in the profession.
There has recently been high profile wins in electing more diverse prosecutors in communities of color, such as the first Black woman District Attorney in Suffolk County (Boston), Rachael Rollins, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, in Chicago. Foxx replaced ousted State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez, in the wake of the Laquan McDonald shooting.
Sen. Harris’ current policy agenda around criminal justice reform includes incentivizing bail reform systems, which disadvantage poor families who cannot afford to pay their way out of waiting behind bars before trial. She recently met with Rev. Al Sharpton in Harlem to discuss these issues in-depth.
“There is a lot more to do,” Sen. Harris told theGrio. “But I think the thing that’s most important is for people to know– I know what’s wrong.”
Subscribe to theGrio’s YouTube channel to watch the full interview on Monday, Feb. 25th.