If Kamala Harris wanted to do some venting right now, it would be tough to blame her. By the time the former California attorney general was sworn in to her first Senate term in January, the next four years in Washington looked much different than voters in her home state, which Hillary Clinton carried by more than 30 points, might have expected when they elected Harris at the polls some two months earlier. Being a freshman legislator is a famously exhausting, unglamorous slog. Being a freshman legislator in a minority party that also doesn't control the White House means spending your time and energy picking a few of the myriad bad things you don't want to happen, and then trying desperately to prevent them from happening—while understanding that, in all likelihood, most of them are going to happen anyway.
Even so, Harris has figured out ways to make her voice heard. Her sharp cross-examination of Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during his testimony about James Comey's firing drew praise from fellow Democrats and self-righteous rebukes from grumpy Republicans, and during Jeff Sessions' appearance before Senate Intelligence Committee, she swatted aside his pivot attempts with such ease that the visibly-flustered attorney general protested that her line of questioning made him "nervous." And last month, she introduced her first major piece of legislation, teaming up the unlikeliest of Senate allies in an attempt to reform this country's system of bail.
Posting bail allows defendants awaiting trial to leave jail if they deposit a predetermined sum of money with the court, but the way the system is administered in the United States is, to use a technical term, all kinds of broken. Most courts don't consider a defendant's ability to pay when setting the amount, and for those who don't have extra bundles of cash sitting around, even a brief stint in jail can be devastating. Defendants unable to pay sit needlessly in a cell, putting their homes, their jobs, and even custody of their children in jeopardy. And as with many aspects of America's criminal justice system, the burdens are shouldered grimly and disproportionately by minorities: On average, Latino men are assigned bond amounts that are 19 percent higher than their white counterparts. For black men, that number nearly doubles.
Harris' bill would aim to change this, setting aside $10 million in grant money to help states develop programs that consider things like the nature of the charges and the defendant's criminal history when setting bail amounts. (Illinois, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C. have tested out similar tweaks in recent years.) Harris wants to scale up these efforts, and to do so, she joined forces with Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who falls so far to the right on the ideological spectrum that he withheld his support from early versions of the Republican health care bill that would have robbed tens of millions of Americans of their coverage because, in his view, it didn't go far enough.
How did we get here? Well, Paul is your favorite budget-slasher's favorite budget-slasher, and his libertarian streak has made him an outspoken critic of inequitable criminal justice policies like mandatory minimum sentences—which, he notes, are the building blocks of a justice system that will put one in three black men behind bars at some point in their lives. In a New York Times op-ed, the pair notes that the cost of housing largely-nonviolent defendants awaiting trial is around $38 million every day, and that meaningful bail reform could save $78 billion in taxpayer dollars every year. Bail is antiquated and discriminatory, yes, and it's also a giant waste of money.
Although professing a commitment to across-the-aisle cooperation is all the rage these days, the proposal will be a tough sell in a Senate as bitterly divided and uncompromisingly partisan as this one. Nonetheless, these two are determined to give it a go. I spoke to Senator Harris about her vision for criminal justice reform, the challenges of representing a blue state in a unified Republican government, and what message she would have for Democratic voters if she had a big election to win in, say, 2020. (Hypothetically, of course.)
GQ: You and Senator Paul are co-sponsors of this initiative, but you might be approaching the issue from slightly different perspectives—he’s best known for his libertarian, deficit-conscious leanings, while you’ve primarily cited racial and economic justice for your support of the bill. What aspects of the proposal that you would do differently if this were not a bipartisan effort? What compromises did you make in the process?
Senator Kamala Harris: You know, I would be pushing for this kind of approach either way. The emphasis really is on the economic justice component, which is always going to require us to see the intersection between that and race. Unfortunately, there is a real connection between the two in this country.
I support the idea of encouraging states to be creative and to come up with best practices because as California’s attorney general, I learned that great innovations can come out of initiatives like this, which can then serve as models for the nation. This was, frankly, as principled as possible in terms of holding onto the idea that smarter government means creating incentives to shift from money bail to a risk assessment-based approach. It’s smarter for public safety and for economic reasons. We received a lot of input from civil rights groups and law enforcement groups, and I think the consensus is that this approach actually makes sense, without any compromise of values or priorities.
The language of this bill is permissive—it allows the Department of Justice to make grants to states, but does not require that it do anything. Are you concerned that Donald Trump's DOJ, which has made "law and order" one if its main talking points, will drag its feet in administering those funds?
At this point, I'm not concerned that they wouldn't make it a priority. We set up this program through DOJ because that is the most logical of the federal agencies in which to house it. DOJ has a decades-long history of providing incentives for states to reform their criminal justice systems—for example, one of the leading reasons that courts created special drug courts and started treating those types of cases differently is because of federal grant funding.
From my experience, I'll also tell you that the folks responsible for implementing this will be career people at the Department of Justice, who have been there for a long time, and who understand that many reforms in our criminal justice system have happened because of DOJ grants. They’re the people who are going to have the direct input in deciding who gets the grants and how these programs are implemented.
Frankly, if we’re successful with this, it’s going to be because of bipartisan support. That’s why Rand Paul and I did this together. I believe strongly that this is not even a bipartisan issue—it's a nonpartisan issue. I hope that we can make the point that, on the metrics and on objective facts, passing this bill shouldn't be burdened by ideological influences. It's just the smart and right thing to do.
What are other issues where you see the potential for gains from trade with colleagues across the aisle—even if you might approach an issue for different reasons?
In the field of criminal justice policy, we’ve been offered a false choice between being “soft” on crime or “tough” on crime, instead of asking if we are smart on crime. If we’re going to be smarter about the way our system works, one of the questions must be, “Are we being effective in our use of limited resources to achieve public safety?” When you look at it through that lens, you see that taxpayers are not getting the best return on their investment.
Most states have very high rates of recidivism—most offenders re-offend within three years of release. This is very expensive in terms of the psychological costs of crime to the community, and also in terms of what we pay for the infrastructure of our criminal justice system, from police and sheriff department budgets to the costs of operating courts, jails, and prisons. In California, I helped design the “Back on Track” initiative, a public-private partnership that brings together mental health services and organized labor and nonprofits and chambers of commerce to help support offenders upon their release, reducing the likelihood that they'll re-offend. That’s been highly successful, and support for it has been absolutely bipartisan.
You’re a freshman senator representing an overwhelmingly blue state who has to operate in a unified Republican government that carries out its business 3,000 miles away from home. What about this experience is different than it would be if you had been elected two years ago or four years ago?
Well… I don't know any different! [laughs] I was actually talking with someone today about that—this is the only environment I've known in the United States Senate, so I don't have anything else to compare it to.
That said, I feel a strong sense of purpose. I also believe that even in an environment that sometimes seems hyper-political, there are opportunities to get things done. I think this bill is an example of that. I'm excited that after only six months, we've been able to make that kind of progress with someone across the aisle with whom, seemingly, we would have nothing in common! I am a realist, but I also am an optimist, and that gives me a sense of optimism.
There's a lot of discussion within the Democratic Party right now about messaging. I know you're not up for reelection until 2022, but pretend you had a big election to win before then. What should Democrats be telling voters as the party makes its pitch to take back the White House?
Well, let's talk about 2018, which is what I’m focused on. I think it's extraordinarily important that we let people know that we see them and hear them—in all the complexities of their lives.
Here’s how I think about this: When someone wakes up in a cold sweat at 3 o'clock in the morning, it’s neverthrough the lens of whether they're a Democrat or a Republican. It’s never through the lens of some demographic group that a pollster put them in. The vast majority of the time, it has to do with just a few things—their health, or the health of their children, or the health of their parents. Can they get a job? Can they keep a job? Can they pay the bills at the end of the month? Can they retire with dignity?
Whether we are talking about an African-American student in Los Angeles, a Latina mom in Texas, or an unemployed truck driver in Lansing, that is a universal truth. We need to speak to those realities in a way that’s consistent with our values. The vast majority of Americans have so much more in common with one another than things that separate them. Let's speak to that.
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!