Kamala’s Plan to Transform the Criminal Justice System and Re-Envision Public Safety in America
A plan to fundamentally transform our criminal justice system to shift away from mass incarceration and to invest in building safer and healthier communities.
Reforming our criminal justice system is as complex and pressing an endeavor as any other in our lifetime. It is the civil rights issue of our time, and there is perhaps no one more uniquely suited to taking on this issue than Kamala Harris.
From the civil rights protests she attended as a child, to her time working inside the system as a prosecutor, Kamala has seen firsthand the fundamental flaws of the system. And because of her experiences, she has the insight and the fight to fundamentally transform the system for the better.
At its best, the system serves to hold serious wrongdoers accountable and achieve justice for crime survivors, while helping to build safer and healthier communities. At its worst, decades of failed policies have created an unjust, unequal, and vastly expansive system that disproportionately harms communities of color and criminalizes individuals just because they are poor. It is long past time to re-envision public safety by strengthening and supporting our communities and drastically limiting the number of people we expose to our criminal justice system. As president, Kamala will fundamentally transform how we approach public safety.
HERE’S HOW SHE’LL DO IT:
The criminal justice system in America is vast. There are about 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails today. Of the 2.3 million people, nearly 2 million are in state prisons and local jails. Thus, it is important to understand that much of criminal justice policy occurs on the state and local level. However, the president also has an important role to play in effecting change.
As president, there are four main levers that Kamala can exercise to change criminal justice policy. She can: (1) work with Congress and use her executive authority to change law and policy on the federal level; (2) investigate state and local actors through the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; (3) empower and incentivize behavior on the state and local level through federal funding; and (4) use her voice as president to advocate for change. And as president, Kamala will exercise every one of these levers to increase public safety, reduce our outsized criminal justice system, and make it fairer and more equitable for all.
(1) End Mass Incarceration and Invest Resources into Evidence and Community-Based Programs that Reduce Crime and Help Build Safe and Healthy Communities
(2) Law Enforcement’s Primary Mission is to Serve and Protect Communities. It Should Instill Trust and Be Accountable to the Communities It Serves
(3) The System Must Treat Individuals Equitably and Humanely
(4) The System Must Protect Vulnerable People
(1) End Mass Incarceration and Invest Resources into Evidence and Community- Based Programs that Reduce Crime and Help Build Safe and Healthy Communities
Ending Mass Incarceration.
There are about 2.3 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails today, which is an increase from about 500,000 in 1980. But perhaps more importantly, people go to jail 10.6 million times every year. The number of jail admissions is perhaps a more accurate reflection of just how expansive the system is, and how much work is required to transform and contract the system. Worse, Black Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of White Americans; the incarceration rate for Black women is twice that of White women. And when these men and women are released from confinement, one report found that they face nearly 50,000 federal, state, and local legal restrictions that serve as barriers to reentry into society. For example, one study shows that a criminal record can reduce the likelihood of a callback or job offer by nearly 50%, and the negative impact is even more considerable for Black applicants.
Make significant federal investments in policies that would end mass incarceration and especially into evidence-based, non-carceral social supports and programs at the state and local level to improve public safety and reduce violence. This includes investing in jobs and job training, housing, transportation, food security, education, medical and mental health care, including trauma recovery.
End the “War on Drugs” — One-fifth of the incarcerated population — or 456,000 people — is serving time for a drug charge while another 1.15 million are on probation and parole for drug-related offenses. This is especially the case on the federal level, where nearly half of the prison population are there for drug crimes. So it is past time to end the failed war on drugs, and it begins with legalizing marijuana. Marijuana arrests account for over 50% of all drug arrests. Of the 8.2 million marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88% were for simple marijuana possession. Worse, despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are about four times more likely than White people to be arrested for marijuana. Black Americans also make up nearly 30% of all drug-related arrests, despite accounting for only 12.5% of substance users.
Legalizing marijuana. Support states in legalizing marijuana; legalize marijuana on the federal level, expunge convictions, and reinvest in the community.
Kamala’s Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act does the following: Legalizes marijuana at the federal level by removing the substance from the Controlled Substances Act. This applies retroactively to prior and pending convictions, and enables states to set their own policy; Requires expungement and, on motion, re-sentencing for marijuana-based convictions; Creates 3 grant programs by assessing a sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products. The grant programs do the following:(1) Provides services to the individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, including job training, re-entry services, legal aid;
(2) Provides states and localities with funds to make loans to assist small businesses in the marijuana industry that are owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals;
(3) Provides funds for programs that minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment for the individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.
Invest money in states to significantly reduce the incarceration of women convicted of non-violent offenses. While most are aware of the system’s impact on men, it is less well known how quickly the incarcerated population for women has gone up. According to the Sentencing Project, “the female incarcerated population stands nearly eight times higher than in 1980.” We must therefore focus on dramatically reducing the number of incarcerated women convicted of non-violent offenses by finding alternatives to incarceration.
Sentencing Reforms. Significant reforms must be made with respect to the criminal justice system’s sentencing schemes, including:
End mandatory minimums on federal level and incentivize states to do the same. As a Senator, Kamala is a cosponsor of the Justice Safety Valve Act, which would eliminate all mandatory minimums by letting judges issue sentences below the mandatory minimum.
Reform clemency process to form clemency/sentencing review units and significantly increase use of clemency.
The clemency process needs to be removed from the Department of Justice where there are inherent conflicts of interest. Specifically, DOJ should not determine whether individuals convicted by their own colleagues should be shortened or commuted.
For those who have been sentenced to long prison terms (i.e., 20 years or more), the sentencing review unit would provide for an assessment as to whether it is appropriate and serves the interests of justice for the incarcerated individual to be released or have their sentence shortened after having served 10 years.
- End federal crack and powder cocaine disparity (reduce from 18:1 to 1:1).
- National Criminal Justice Commission. The last time this nation seriously examined the criminal justice system was in 1967 when President Lyndon Johnson created the Katzenbach Commission. That commission was fueled largely by people’s concern about crime. It’s time for a new national criminal justice commission, fueled by bipartisan support for major criminal justice reforms. Kamala would form a commission with diverse stakeholders, whose goals would include studying the federal and state criminal justice systems, and providing recommendations within one year. Her administration would then take action based on those recommendations. In its 360 degree assessment of the system, pressing issues that need to be addressed include (but are not limited to):
- Studying individuals incarcerated for violent offenses to provide recommendations via evidence-based findings. Politicians often talk about ending mass incarceration. However, one cannot truly reform the system without studying the effects of how best to hold individuals convicted of violent offenses accountable. While a significant part of the federal system involves those convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, at the state level, more than half of those convicted are there for violent offenses. Moreover, studies show that merely imposing excessively long sentences does not improve results of preventing individuals from re-offending. So what are the best ways to hold violent offenders accountable and prevent re- offending? The commission would study this issue and provide recommendations based on evidence-based findings.
- Redefining the metrics and data we use to measure success in our criminal justice system. People in the system use terminology such as “recidivism” even though there is no good definition of what that means. And people use data such as rearrests, when that is not an accurate measure of “recidivism” and perpetuates racial disparities, as communities of color are often more heavily policed. Our system needs to have a shared set of metrics and data collection that accurately measures what success means and informs our policymaking.
Reform community supervision.
Invest money in states to shorten the length of probation and other forms of community supervision where appropriate and where it serves the interests of justice;
Invest money in states to end jail time for technical violations of community- based supervision (reforming parole).
End the use of private prisons. Less than 10 percent of our prison population is held in private facilities, but it is nevertheless still necessary to end the profit motive that drives these private prisons, as it is inhumane to profit off of imprisonment and allow a system that continues to create incentives that are contrary to the goal of helping people rehabilitate themselves and return to the community. Kamala also believe we must end private detention centers for undocumented immigrants.
Help Children Thrive.
Several studies have demonstrated that children’s earliest life experiences — from nourishment and reading to poverty and exposure to violence — have profound effects on their brain development and long-term health and safety. Even later in childhood, the brain maturity of our young people is fundamentally different from adults. As a result, children must be treated differently by our government, from the child welfare and education systems to our criminal justice system. We must invest in the building blocks of public safety by prioritizing the health, well-being, and safety of children from their earliest years to set them up to thrive as adults.
Create a Bureau of Children and Family Justice.
As the Attorney General of California, Kamala created the Bureau of Children’s Justice to focus on children’s civil rights in the child welfare, education, and juvenile justice systems.
As president, Kamala would build and expand on that idea by creating a Bureau of Children and Family Justice to work across agencies in supporting communities and families, including investing in healthcare, education, jobs, and other wrap around services.
As president, Kamala would address the broken foster care system and disrupt the pipeline of children from the child welfare system to the criminal justice system. She’ll work with leaders like Rep. Karen Bass and the bipartisan Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth (CCFY) to ensure foster youth have the education, healthcare, and other wraparound services they need to heal from trauma and grow into healthy, thriving adults.
Research shows that access to school-based health services has a positive impact on absences, dropout rates, disciplinary problems and other academic outcomes, in addition to the crucial health-related benefits these services provide. As president, Kamala will ensure that students continue to have access to school-based health services by requiring equivalent or better services to be covered and reimbursable under her Medicare for All plan.
Invest money in states/localities to end juvenile incarceration in favor of restorative justice programs and wrap-around services, except for the most serious crimes.
End life sentences of children and offer opportunities for sentence reduction to young people convicted of crimes. For example, fight to end de facto life without parole sentences by allowing youth sentenced to more than 20 years in prison for crimes committed before their 18th birthday to petition the original sentencing court for review of their sentence after they have served 10 years.
End the transfer of children to adult prisons;
End solitary confinement for children;
Invest money in states to stop criminal charges for school-based disciplinary behavior;
Invest money in states to hold schools accountable for discriminatory practices in suspensions and expulsions. As CA AG, Kamala launched an investigation into the Stockton Unified School District police department over concerns of racial discrimination in school discipline and school policing, including treatment of elementary school children. CA DOJ announced a comprehensive settlement in 2019 to resolve systemic civil rights violations of African American and Latinx students and students with disabilities.
Promoting Rehabilitation and Reintegration
Make significant federal investment for innovative Back-on-Track programs that provide in-custody and out-of-custody education and comprehensive services to individuals convicted of crimes to reduce recidivism by equipping them with the tools they need to reenter society successfully.
Education, job training, and treatment. Mandate that federal prisons provide educational and vocational training, and mental health and addiction treatment in custody, including diagnosis and treatment of trauma. Early in her career, Kamala worked with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris — now California’s Surgeon General — to create the Center for Youth Wellness to screen children for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and treat the toxic stress that can have lasting effects on their physical and mental health. As president, she’ll invest federal money to incentivize states to follow their lead.
Reentry educational course. Mandate federal prisons to provide a reentry educational course that provides, among other things, information on acquiring identification and their options with respect to housing, education, treatment, and other assistance programs. Invest federal money into this program and incentivize states to provide the same reentry educational course.
Create an advisory board of directly impacted individuals to make recommendations for successful re-entry.
Expungement & Sealing—Automatic expungement and sealing of offenses that are not serious or violent after 5 years
Ban the box, i.e., remove questions about an individual’s conviction histories until after conditional offers have been made. Individuals reentering society should have a meaningful opportunity to obtain a job and reintegrate into the community.
Restore voting rights for all who have served their sentence.
End federal bans on formerly-incarcerated individuals (as well as those arrested and not incarcerated) access to public housing, student loans, SNAP, and professional work licenses, including: Fair Chance at Housing Act of 2019: Kamala’s bicameral bill introduced with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which helps remove barriers to obtaining federal housing assistance for individuals with criminal records.
Prioritize enforcement of anti-discrimination laws/EEOC rules that prevent discrimination in employment, housing, etc. based on a prior convictions.
(2) Law Enforcement’s Primary Mission is to Serve and Protect Communities. It Should Instill Trust and Be Accountable to the Communities It Serves
Law enforcement is a critical part of our communities and we should appreciate the sacrifices of those who serve on our behalf. And we should also recognize that the majority of those in law enforcement are dedicated public servants who serve honorably. At the same time, there are some communities — especially communities of color — who have not always held the same trust in law enforcement because of their experiences. When individuals in these communities are subject to racial profiling, excessive force, or other misconduct — they have a right to demand that police be held accountable.
Law Enforcement Trust & Accountability.
There are an estimated 16,000 to 18,000 local, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies in the United States with the average agency having fewer than 50 officers. In this respect, the American policing system is unique in that each of these agencies falls under the control of a local governing body, executive, or elected official(s). Local control is arguably one of the key characteristics that makes the American policing system unique. It is also the characteristic that presents the greatest challenge to establishing standardized ethical and professional practices within a system few deny is in need of reform. In order to reform the policing system, Kamala would:
Support a national standard for use of deadly force to only when “necessary” and when no reasonable alternatives are available. The Camden Police Department, led by Chief Scott Thomson has instituted one of the most progressive use of force policies that might serve as a model. It incorporated stakeholder feedback from various stakeholders, including the New Jersey ACLU and the Fraternal Order of Police. The policy focuses on six core principles:
(1) Officers may use force only to accomplish specific law enforcement objectives.
(2) Whenever feasible, officers should attempt to de-escalate confrontations with the goal of resolving encounters without force. Officers may only use force that is objectively reasonable, necessary, and as a last resort.
(3) Officers must use only the amount of force that is proportionate to the circumstances.
(4) Deadly force is only authorized as a last resort and only in strict accordance with this directive.
(5) Officers must promptly provide or request medical aid.
(6) Employees have a duty to stop and report uses of force that violate any applicable law and/or this directive.
Create a National Police Systems Review Board. As noted above there are approximately 16,000 to 18,000 police departments in the United States, which means that safety standards and regulations vary from department to department. Independent bodies such as the National Transportation Safety Board have played a role in greatly reducing airplane crashes by recommending and implementing industry standards and regulations after airplane crashes.
Kamala would work with Congress to create a National Police Systems Review Board, which would collect data and review police shootings and other cases of severe misconduct, and work to issue recommendations and implement safety standards based on evidence revealed in these reviews.
Independent investigations of officer-involved shootings. Kamala would allocate resources to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (OJP) to incentivize state agencies to conduct independent investigations of officer-involved shootings.
Kamala has previously supported independent investigations as California’s Attorney General, for example, when she submitted a budget proposal to the Governor that would fund 3 California Department of Justice teams to investigate officer-involved shootings statewide.
Increase resources for U.S. Department of Justice pattern and practice investigations and restore the use of consent decrees.
Double the size of Civil Rights Division.
Pass legislation that authorizes the Civil Rights Division to have subpoena power for their pattern and practice investigations. As CA AG, Kamala supported California Department of Justice pattern and practice investigations. Specifically, she opened civil pattern and practice investigations into the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office in response to community complaints and reports of excessive use of force and misconduct.
Restore the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office’s ability to conduct voluntary organizational assessments of law enforcement agencies and provide recommendations and technical assistance to address deficient operational systems and problematic practices.
Increase funding for body cameras and set standards for its use; Standards must take into account privacy concerns and community input.
Invest federal resources to incentivize states to hire a diverse and qualified workforce;
Invest federal money and create accountability mechanisms to incentivize state/local governments to provide police use of force training that includes: De-escalation; Crisis Intervention; Mental Health; Proportionality; Deadly force investigations; Providing medical treatment; Giving oral warnings when feasible; Psychological roots of bias; Procedural justice.
Reform civil asset forfeiture laws to eliminate abuses such that it is only limited to cripple transnational gangs and major criminal enterprises — and not to profit and fund police departments.
De-militarize police departments. Kamala would reinstate President Obama’s executive order, which prohibited sales of certain military equipment and placed reasonable access restraints and training requirements to ensure law enforcement had access to tools it needed without militarizing local police.
Address racial disparities in technology used by law enforcement. Kamala would work with stakeholders, including civil rights groups, technology groups, and law enforcement, to institute regulations and protections to ensure that technology used by federal law enforcement — such as facial recognition and other surveillance — does not further racial disparities or other biases. She would also invest federal money to incentivize states and localities to do the same.
Law Enforcement Transparency & Accountability via Data Collection and Analysis. As Attorney General, Kamala launched a first-of-its-kind open data platform called OpenJustice, which created an unprecedented level of transparency and accountability with the public about law enforcement activities in California. She would similarly do so on the federal level by:
- Requiring police data reporting as a condition of federal funds. There is a dire need to reform and improve on current data reporting with respect to law enforcement.
- Encouraging data accountability through state block grants for police data accountability analyses. The purpose would be to determine the part of disparate policing outcomes for which police policies and behaviors are responsible.
- Instituting OJP grants for improving data systems in policing, prisons, jails, and courts (a block grant challenge similar to “race to the top”, but for improving data systems in our criminal justice system).
- Increasing funding to support developing best practices in civilian oversight.
Require states receiving federal law enforcement funds to participate in the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) National Decertification Index (NDI).
In the U.S., 46 states provide for revoking a police officer’s license or certificate when the officer has engaged in serious misconduct. This is the case in other professions as well, such as law and medicine. The IADLEST’s national registry provides information related to officer misconduct as reported by participating state government agencies. This list should be comprehensive and include all states. This would prohibit officers who committed serious misconduct from simply applying for law enforcement jobs in other states.
Expand access to mental health services and trauma-informed care. In the United States, about 44 million adults are believed to experience a mental health condition in any given year. But over 20% of that group — 9 million American adults — report having an unmet need. And, according to some estimates, 56% of state prisoners and 64% of jail inmates have or have had mental health issues.
Prioritize mental health informed responses. Because mental health care is profoundly under-resourced in America, the criminal justice system is nearly always the frontline response for individuals with mental health disorders, a reality that frequently results in officer use of deadly force. According to a 2015 report, a person with an untreated mental illness is 16 times more likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer than others who encounter law enforcement. A review by the Washington Post revealed that over 20% of individuals killed by a law enforcement officer in 2018 was experiencing a mental or emotional health crisis.
Support proposals that de-emphasize criminal justice interventions in response to mental health issues because, until we have successfully strengthened our mental health care system, the criminal justice system will continue to be tasked with frontline interactions with people whose primary need is mental health care. Increase funding for U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs grants to improve law enforcement-based responses to people with mental health issues, including training to verbally de-escalate encounters without resorting to physical force.
Increase federal funding for the hiring of mental health professionals to accompany police officers in responding to calls involving individuals in mental crises.
Increase federal grants that support mental health first aid programming that trains participants — teachers, community and city officials of all work functions, and city and community residents — in the critical steps for crisis intervention so that bystanders have the tools to help prevent deaths, assess harmful situations, and seek appropriate medical treatment. The goal is to make mental health first aid as common as regular first aid, such as CPR, which will reduce the need for criminal justice interventions in response to mental health issues.
Increase funding for officer safety and wellness. As noted by the Department of Justice, the occupational fatality rate for law enforcement is three to five times greater than the national average for the working population. Career dangerousness is compounded by exposure to the same traumatic environments that plague our most vulnerable communities. If our goal is healthy communities, the people sworn to protect them must also be healthy. It is therefore important to ensure that there is sufficient funding to address the physical and mental health, along with safety, of officers.
Provide explicit authority to the U.S Department of Justice to conduct pattern and practice investigations of prosecutorial offices that commit systematic misconduct.
Invest federal funds in data collection and data analysis for greater transparency and accountability.
Require federal prosecutors to provide data on their charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing decisions.
Provide funding to incentivize state prosecutors to participate in a national reporting program.
Invest federal funds to assess prosecutorial priorities. The FBI invests millions of dollars into developing a threat assessment system that helps them set priorities. The same should be done with prosecutors so that they prioritize cases that do the most to promote public safety and justice.
Support for Public Defenders
Support for public defenders to instill greater trust and equity in the justice system. Kamala believes we must support our public defender systems, which are straining to uphold the constitutional right to counsel for indigent defendants as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision. Her EQUAL Defense Act would create a $250 million grant program to fund public defenders. To receive grants, states and localities must impose workload limits, achieve pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors within 5 years, and collect data on public defender workloads. Increases funding for public defender training. Increases student loan repayment program. Her legislation has been endorsed by Jon Rapping of Gideon’s Promise.
(3) The System Must Treat Individuals Equitably and Humanely
Stop criminalizing poverty
End money bail. Our bail system is unjust and broken. 450,000 Americans sit in jail today awaiting trial because they cannot afford to pay bail. Excessive cash bail disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color. Black defendants are more likely to be detained before trial and less likely to be able to post bail compared with similarly-situated White defendants. And Black men pay higher bail than similarly-situated White defendants. Kamala’s Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act with Senator Rand Paul was her first major bipartisan bill in the Senate. The bill provides grants to incentivize states to significantly reform their money bail systems to make them more just.
End the use of fines and fees that criminalize the poor. Invest money in states to end the fines and fees system otherwise known as LFOs (Legal Financial Obligations), where individuals are incarcerated based on the inability to pay fines and fees. In addition, we need to eliminate court fees and fees associated with diversion, treatment, or community supervision that make it harder for individuals to reintegrate into society.
End suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines. Invest money in states to stop suspending driver’s licenses of those who cannot pay off their tickets or fines.
Currently, more than 40 states use driver’s license suspension as punishment for failure to pay debts, include traffic or parking tickets, civil judgments from court, child support orders, and other debt. This is counterproductive and harmful to individuals who need to commute to their jobs, take their children to school, and otherwise support their family.
Humane Treatment of Prisoners
End the death penalty. Kamala believes the death penalty is immoral, discriminatory, ineffective, and a gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. As San Francisco District Attorney, Kamala declined to seek the death penalty in the prosecution of an individual accused of killing a police officer, despite facing relentless political pressure to do so.
End solitary confinement. End solitary confinement, but ensure alternative therapeutic and rehabilitative mechanisms are available to protect the safety of individuals in prisons and of prison staff.
End the profiting off of incarceration. Specifically, prohibit prisons from making a profit from charging exorbitant rates for prisoners for telecommunications and commissary/food and supplies in prison.
Keeping Families Intact. Ripping families apart creates lasting harm and undermines the goal of building safer and healthier communities. We should strive to maintain family connections.
Make it easier for family to visit prisoners
- The FIRST STEP Act instituted a requirement to allow for federal prisoners to be placed within 500 miles of their post-release residency where possible. Kamala would reduce that distance even more and invest money in states to do the same.
- Restore parental rights for returning citizens in a timely manner
Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, which Kamala cosponsors would:
- Require videoconference access free of charge;
- Provide parenting classes for prisoners who are primary caretaker parents; and
- Institute a pilot program to allow overnight visits from family members.
(4) The System Must Protect Vulnerable People
Clear nationwide rape kit backlog in first term. Invest $1 billion to allow states to fully eliminate their rape-kit backlogs within four years and implement reforms to ensure a backlog does not happen again.
As Attorney General, Kamala eliminated a longstanding backlog of DNA analysis and more than 1,000 untested rape kits in state-run labs and introduced new technology to dramatically increase the speed with which cases are analyzed.
Kamala also backed California legislation in 2016 “to illuminate the state’s invisible backlog of untested rape kits,” and in the U.S. Senate, she sponsors The Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act, which would make rape kits more readily available at hospitals nationwide.
Protecting consumers against fraud and fighting for victims’ rights. Prioritize and double resources in DOJ to address corporate crimes and those who defraud consumers. For too long, corporate bad actors have escaped accountability because the justice system has not prioritized their wrongdoings. Just as Kamala did as AG, she will fight to protect consumers from fraud and for victims’ rights.
Big banks. Kamala secured $20 billion for California homeowners from the big banks for abusing the mortgage system and fueling the national foreclosure crisis.
For-profit colleges. Kamala won a $1.1 billion judgment against the for-profit (and now defunct) Corinthian Colleges for their predatory and unlawful practices to defraud students.