Bloomberg Law
Jan. 26, 2021, 5:23 PMUpdated: Jan. 26, 2021, 5:42 PM

Criminal Justice Changes Need Harris to Lead, Advocates Say (1)

Ayanna Alexander
Ayanna Alexander

Advocates expect Vice President Kamala Harris to play a central role in guiding the Biden administration’s efforts to implement sweeping criminal justice reforms.

Harris brings to the task her experience as a district attorney in San Francisco and as California attorney general, and the reforms Harris touted in her own presidential campaign plan largely match the policies proposed by President Joe Biden, putting her views in line with one of the administration’s top priorities.

The focus on criminal justice comes as President Joe Biden is expected to announce more racial justice policies today following a broad executive order meant to advance equity that he signed on his first day in office.

Civil rights advocates see Harris as a point person for the criminal justice effort, and those expectations will bring added pressure. How effectively the administration follows through on its promises to tackle racial disparities in criminal justice—and the role Harris takes on in that effort—will be closely watched.

“A majority of Americans really want fairness in the system and if they didn’t see how unfair it has been before, they certainly saw it on Jan. 6,” said Cynthia W. Roseberry, deputy director of policy in the Justice Division of the American Civil Liberties Union, about the U.S. Capitol riot. “The Vice President must confront the vestiges of the historic racism in policing in America, from the slave patrols to now.”

The former California senator and her team “have been very much involved” on the Biden administration’s racial justice and equity actions, said a senior administration official.

Complicated Record

Harris brings a long record dealing with criminal justice matters as a prosecutor and district attorney, a record that came under scrutiny from reform advocates during her 2020 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Critics said as San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, Harris didn’t do enough to prosecute cases involving police use of force. After the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Harris also faced pressure as attorney general to investigate a series of police shootings in San Francisco.

“My general understanding is, as a prosecutor, she was more of a law and order, punitive prosecutor and some would probably say a pro-police prosecutor,” said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor in Howard University’s department of sociology and criminology.

Harris sought to address those criticisms in her 2020 campaign, touting criminal justice legislation she supported in the Senate, and saying that even as a prosecutor she sought to promote policing and sentencing reforms.

“I created one of the first-in-the-nation training for police officers on the issue of racial bias and the need to reform the system. Was I able to get enough done? Absolutely not, but my plan has been described by activists as being a bold and comprehensive plan that is about ending mass incarceration, about taking the profit out of the criminal justice system,” she said at a Sept. 2019 Democratic presidential debate.

“Knowing the system from the inside, I will have the ability to be an effective leader and get this job complete,” Harris added.

Police Reforms

Advocates expect Harris to be a strong ally in two particular areas: increasing police accountability and sentencing reform.

Harris’s criminal justice plan, released in 2019, voiced support for a “national standard” for the use of deadly force and limiting it to situations where it was “necessary” or no other alternatives were available. It also called for a national review board to look at police safety standards and regulations, and more resources for the Department of Justice to encourage independent investigations of officer-involved shootings and for the agency to resume the use of consent decrees.

In Congress, Harris backed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020, Democrats’ reform bill which did not advance in the GOP-controlled Senate. Harris was also a vocal advocate for banning no-knock warrants after the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor.

“The most pressing thing that Vice President Harris will have to do is focus a great deal of criminal justice on reforming policing, because it’s the entry point to the criminal justice system,” said Jones-Brown. “What has been ratcheted up over the last 20-30 years is police behavior, police authority, and police interference with everyday people’s lives.

Mass Incarceration

Harris during her presidential campaign also vowed to enact significant sentencing reforms and initiatives to reduce mass incarceration and the use of private prisons and detention centers. She has backed ending federal mandatory minimum sentences and restructuring sentencing for marijuana-based offenses in her reform plan.

Harris cosponsored the Justice Safety Valve Act in 2017, which would eliminate all mandatory minimums. Harris also sponsored the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act in 2019, which sought to end the federal prohibition of the drug and encouraged states to expunge the records of those convicted of marijuana offenses.

Neither bill made it through the Senate.

“The federal government, in the ramp up of mass incarceration, played a role in encouraging states to keep people in prison longer,” said Jeremy Travis, executive vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures LLC, a philanthropic group on criminal justice and other social issues.

Her experience as a prosecutor could help Harris reverse those policies, he said. “We’ve lost so many people to prison for a very long time and the federal government, utilizing the Vice President’s background, can now play the same role, but in the reverse.”

Roseberry said Harris could play a role in reforming the presidential pardon process, where reform groups are calling on Biden to sideline the Department of Justice from decisions, and expand clemency for non-violent drug offenders.

Harris has also highlighted the challenges facing imprisoned women in her reform plan, advocates said.

“We, as a country, haven’t paid enough attention to the growing number of women who are incarcerated in local jails and in our state prisons,” said Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

“She’s really well-placed to champion reforms that improve conditions for women who are frustrated by the system.”

In the Spotlight

Navigating those expectations and delivering on the administration’s problems will be a test for Harris.

Since the primary, civil rights groups have largely been supportive of Harris. National Urban League President Marc Morial said she should not be held to a higher standard than others on criminal justice reform.

“She will face haters, but we’re going to aggressively defend her against unfair attacks,” Morial said. “She opposed the death penalty in San Francisco and it almost cost her reelection, but she took a courageous position. Now, there were some fair criticisms, but she shouldn’t be the only person judged in criminal justice reform.

“I’m not going to allow her to be singled out like the fate of criminal justice reform falls on her back. That would be unfair,” he added.

But her background and advocacy on those issues has others expecting bold moves.

“She will have to really be progressive and aggressive in the reforms that she outlines and supports, in order to convince people that she really means what she says,” said Jones-Brown.

(Adds administration comment in the sixth paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at; Cheryl Saenz at