Candidates from large states enjoy a big advantage in presidential elections, and Sen. Kamala Harris is the only major candidate from America’s largest, wealthiest state. Yet she is running in a disappointing fourth-place in California polls. Why?
It’s not a good time to be a law-and-order Democrat in California. There is a backlash against mass incarceration and the policies that led to it — a sentiment which imperils Harris’ campaign.
In previous decades Harris, the former prosecutor, would have fared better. After the 1993 murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas by a twice-convicted kidnapper, California voters passed the “Three Strikes” ballot proposition 72 percent 28 percent, and a three strikes bill was also signed into law that same year. From 1982 to 2000, California’s prison population increased 500 percent, rising to nearly 175,000 in 2006.
Californians’ views have changed substantially since. In 1995, Leonardo Andrade, a nine-year army veteran and father of three, was twice caught shoplifting children’s video tapes, including “Snow White,” “Casper,” and “Cinderella.” Andrade was condemned under Three Strikes to consecutive 25 years-to-life sentences. Legal scholar Erwin Chemerinsky explained:
This generally would be regarded as the crime of petty theft, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine, a jail sentence of six months or less, or both … [As of 2003 there were] 344 individuals serving sentences of 25-to-life or more for shoplifting.”
Similarly, in 1995 Jerry Dewayne Williams was sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing a slice of pizza. Williams says he shared a prison cell with a murderer who was serving a shorter sentence than his. Known to the other inmates as “pizza man,” he recalls, “Everybody thought that I had shot a pizza delivery man.”
Injustices like Andrade’s and Williams’ sentences helped turn Californians against three strikes. In 2012, voters passed Proposition 36, which amended Three Strikes to exclude most non-serious and non-violent felonies from counting as a third strike. The initiative, which passed 69 percent to 31 percent, also authorizes judges to re-sentence those sentenced to life imprisonment for non-serious and non-violent third offenses.
In 2014, Proposition 47, approved 60 percent to 40 percent, reduced certain nonviolent, non-serious crimes to misdemeanors. In 2018, SB 1437 passed, changing California’s felony-murder law so defendants can only be charged with murder if they were a significant participant in the killing.
Under the impact of these reforms, California’s prison population dropped to 111,000 by 2015 — a 36 percent decline — and has since stabilized at around 115,000. Between 2008 and 2016, the proportion of prisoners who had been convicted of a violent, serious, or sexual offense rose from 71 percent to 91 percent.
According to the California Department of Justice, crime remains historically low. From 2006 to 2017 violent crime rates dropped from 536 to 451 per 100,000 people, and property crime rates fell from 3,189 to 2,491 per 100,000.
Californians’ attitude towards the death penalty has also changed. While capital punishment was popular in previous decades, today 62 percent of Californians say they prefer life imprisonment for first-degree murderers. In March, newly-elected California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order putting a moratorium on the death penalty — a temporary reprieve for the 737 people currently on death row.
As California Democrats’ attitudes towards prosecutors and law-and-order candidates soured, Harris proclaimed herself a “progressive prosecutor.” Yet her conduct as attorney general of California from 2011-17 belies this claim. University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon asserted in an interview:
“Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors … Harris turned legal technicalities into weapons so she could cement injustices.”
Bazelon details numerous cases of wrongful convictions under Harris and her office. In 2010, a judge issued a scathing ruling condemning then-San Francisco District Attorney Harris’ office for hiding damaging information about a police drug lab, and being indifferent to demands that it account for the lab’s failings.
Harris also took a stand in favor of the death penalty in 2014, opposed a 2015 bill that would require her office to investigate officer-involved shootings, and refused to support a statewide standard for regulating police officers’ body-cams.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton had the Democratic race locked up before California finally had its primary in June. Californians, angered by the absurdity of playing such a minor role in the primary process, moved the primary up to Super Tuesday. Harris surely calculated that this would help her candidacy. Instead, while her career as a prosecutor may help her in the seven conservative-leaning Super Tuesday states, it may sink her candidacy in California.
Glenn Sacks teaches at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.