Congresswoman Gabbard questioned Sen. Harris's legacy of being a progressive prosecutor last year, especially regarding her marijuana prosecutions.
Amidst the announcement on August 11, 2020, that California Senator Harris will be presumptive Democratic Nominee Joe Biden's running mate in the position of VP, her reputation as Attorney general in California, and as a progressive prosecutor has come under scrutiny.
Last year, Tulsi Gabbard, Congresswoman of Hawai, took Sen. Harris to task on her criminal justice record as former attorney general in the State of California from 2011 to 2017, on a democratic presidential debate held on July 31, 2019.
She made three particular claims in her speech, questioning Sen. Harris' progressive criminal justice record.
The first one was that she put over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she has been asked if she ever smoked marijuana. The 1,560 figure comes from a conservative news site Free Beacon. However, PoliticoFact's fact check determines from the data requested from California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that there were 1,883 admissions to state prison on marijuana offenses during the years Harris was attorney general (2011-2017). Notably, the figures dropped dramatically during Harris' tenure, from 817 marijuana-related admissions in her first year to 137 in her last. For context, marijuana sales and possession remained illegal under state law during Harris' time as attorney general. California voters legalized recreational pot in 2016, the same year Harris was elected to the U.S. Senate and left her AG post. However, it is true that as California attorney general in 2016, Harris declined to weigh in on a state ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana and remained unclear on her stance on the issue. She also admitted in February 2019 to using marijuana recreationally. Now, as a U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, Harris supports marijuana legalization.
The second claim Gabbard made was that Sen. Harris blocked evidence that would have freed an innocent man from death row until the courts forced her to do so. This refers to Kevin Cooper, a black man on death row who was convicted by a jury for a 1983 quadruple murder. Ms. Harris, as attorney general, did not allow new advanced DNA testing in his case, denying Mr. Cooper's request. After The New York Times wrote about the case, Ms. Harris told Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that she felt awful about this and called on the state to allow for such testing. While several governors and legal/judicial experts believed Mr. Cooper's innocence, the advanced DNA test was insufficient in proving Mr. Cooper's innocence and allowing him to leave death row.
The third claim was that Sen. Harris kept people in prison beyond their sentences to use them as cheap labor for the state of California. A Daily Beast article found that lawyers in then AG Harris' office argued in 2014 that, despite court orders to reduce state prison crowding, some non-violent offenders needed to stay in the prison system to help combat wildfires. It does not detail how many prisoners, if any, ended up staying longer than required. According to a spokesperson for Sen. Harris, she was shocked to know that her department's attorneys made such an argument and asked them not to make it again.
Congresswoman Gabbard indeed questioned how progressive Sen. Harris was as Attorney General of California State, especially regarding her stance on marijuana. It is also true that Sen. Harris remained noncommittal regarding her stance on Marijuana legalization through her tenure as AG and also refused to weigh in on a bill on a state ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana.