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Kamala Harris Fought to Keep Nonviolent Prisoners Locked Up


ALEXANDER SAMMON, asammon at prospect.org, @alex_sammon, Sammon just wrote the piece “How Kamala Harris Fought to Keep Nonviolent Prisoners Locked Up” for The American Prospect: “Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a leading candidate to be Joe Biden’s running mate, repeatedly and openly defied U.S. Supreme Court orders to reduce overcrowding in California prisons while serving as the state’s attorney general, according to legal documents reviewed by the Prospect. Working in tandem with Gov. Jerry Brown, Harris and her legal team filed motions that were condemned by judges and legal experts as obstructionist, bad-faith, and nonsensical, at one point even suggesting that the Supreme Court lacked the jurisdiction to order a reduction in California’s prison population.

“The intransigence of this legal work resulted in the presiding judges in the case giving serious consideration to holding the state in contempt of court. Observers worried that the behavior of Harris’s office had undermined the very ability of federal judges to enforce their legal orders at the state level, pushing the federal court system to the brink of a constitutional crisis. This extreme resistance to a Supreme Court ruling was done to prevent the release of fewer than 5,000 nonviolent offenders, whom multiple courts had cleared as presenting next to no risk of recidivism or threat to public safety.

“Despite a straightforward directive from the Supreme Court to identify prisoners for release over a two-year period, upholding a 2009 ruling that mandated the same action over the same timeline, the state spent the majority of that period seesawing back and forth between dubious legal filings and flagrant disregard. By early 2013, it became clear that the state had no intention to comply, leading to a series of surprisingly combative exchanges.

“While Harris’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign saw questions raised about her criminalization of truancy and her tough-on-crime reputation during her time as San Francisco’s district attorney, her role in California’s prison reduction case largely flew under the radar, though it was decried at the time. As concerns grow about Donald Trump’s subversion of the law — he, along with his attorney general, William Barr, is currently defying a Supreme Court ruling by refusing to restart the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — the potential Democratic vice-presidential nominee engaging in relatively similar obstinacy is jarring.

“Sen. Harris’s office has yet to respond to a set of questions from the Prospect.”