/Kamala Harris rolls out broad plan for criminal justice reform

Kamala Harris rolls out broad plan for criminal justice reform

Sen. Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris is billing her criminal justice plan as a re-envisioning of public safety in America. | Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

Kamala Harris on Monday unveiled a sweeping blueprint to overhaul the criminal justice system, including ending federal mandatory minimum sentences and pushing states to do the same, terminating the death penalty and solitary confinement, and phasing out for-profit prisons and cash bail.

Harris’ criminal justice plan, which the California senator and former prosecutor is billing as a re-envisioning of public safety in America, would also end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine that reformers believe is rooted in prejudice, and legalize marijuana at the federal level.

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Several of the Democratic presidential candidate’s proposals draw heavily from her initiatives as a district attorney and as attorney general of California — from a mandatory federal prison reentry education program designed to reduce recidivism, to the creation of a federal Bureau of Children and Family Justice that would focus on civil rights in the child welfare, education and juvenile justice systems.

“My entire career has been spent making needed reforms and fighting for those who too often are voiceless — from young people arrested for the first time and getting them jobs instead of jail, to grieving black mothers who wanted justice for their child’s murder as the system ignored their pain,” Harris wrote in a statement accompanying her plan. “This plan uses my experience and unique capability to root out failures within the justice system … As president I’ll fix this broken system to make it fairer and more accountable for communities across the country.”

Harris campaign officials said she consulted a wide range of experts and advocates to craft the proposals. Her release precedes the third Democratic debate, on Thursday, which comes after Harris spent the summer backsliding in polls. She now finds herself closer to the bottom rung of candidates than the leading three — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. While Harris doesn’t represent the same threat that she did in the second debate, after getting the best of Biden, she has wanted to codify her justice positions all in one plan.

Harris’ proposal, one of several by Democratic presidential contenders, also comes amid persistent questions about her mixed record in the area. While she points to her reentry program, to her collecting and publishing data on in-custody deaths and police shootings as attorney general, and to the California Justice Department’s becoming the first statewide agency in the country to mandate officer-worn body cameras, critics believe she largely played it safe rather than advocating for the kind of aggressive reforms she backs today.

As attorney general, Harris refused to throw her political weight behind everything from marijuana legalization to ballot initiatives aimed at lowering scores of nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors and giving certain nonviolent felons a chance at early parole. Harris argued that weighing in would have constituted a conflict of interest because it fell on her office to prepare titles and summaries of the measures that voters saw when they headed to the polls.

While campaigning for the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris took heat from civil rights activists and African American leaders for refusing to support state legislation requiring the attorney general’s office to independently investigate fatal police shootings. Harris reversed her stance earlier this year, saying she now believes the best approach to handling allegations of brutality by law enforcement officials is through independent probes.

In her 14-page plan, Harris goes further: She would send more money to the U.S. Department of Justice to incentivize state agencies to conduct independent investigations of officer-involved shootings, and would support a national standard establishing that officers use deadly force only when “necessary” and when they see no reasonable alternatives.

Harris’ plan says she would work with Congress to create a so-called National Police Systems Review Board to collect data and review police shootings and other misconduct cases, and work to issue recommendations and impose new standards. Harris’ campaign also pointed out that she wants to increase federal funding to deal with the physical and mental health and safety of police officers.

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