Talking Points

The best argument against Kamala Harris for VP

Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is reportedly the frontrunner to be picked as Joe Biden's running mate. At a time of close attention to racial justice issues, the first Black woman vice president would be a marked symbolic advance.

However, there is another side to Harris' record on this question. Alex Sammon examined documents from Harris' tenure as California attorney general for The American Prospect, and found that she disobeyed for years a Supreme Court order to reduce the extreme overcrowding in the state's prisons. Harris took office in 2011, and in May that year the court ruled the state's packed prisons — which had previously reached 200 percent of their design capacity — were a violation of the Eighth Amendment. They instructed the state to cut capacity to 167 percent by the end of 2011, to 137.5 percent by June 2013, and appointed a 3-judge oversight panel.

Harris refused. The state made little progress in 2011, and in 2012 appealed to get the final figure raised to 145 percent (which was denied). By April 2013 the state was still 9,636 prisoners over the cap, and the oversight board recommended extending "good time" credits to nonviolent offenders. Harris's office fought tooth and nail against this proposal. The judges found their arguments so "continually equivocated regarding the facts and the law" that they nearly held the state in contempt of court. Eventually, in 2014, Harris gave in and the prison population was duly reduced.

This stubborn foot-dragging to keep nonviolent, low-risk offenders in grossly overcrowded prisons bears a striking contrast with Harris's decision not to prosecute Steven Mnuchin (now secretary of the Treasury) for illegal foreclosures when he was head of OneWest Bank. As David Dayen reported at The Intercept, California prosecutors wrote a memo in 2013 describing how they "uncovered evidence suggestive of widespread misconduct," including 1,000 alleged legal violations in just a sample of OneWest loans. They recommended Harris file charges, but she declined to do so.

So on the one hand, Harris went to the mat to keep thousands of nonviolent offenders behind bars. On the other, she would not prosecute a rich, well-connected person even when her own staffers found 1,000 alleged crimes. It's not a great fit for a time when the rampant injustice in American police departments and prisons has become a first-rank political issue.