Candidates from large states enjoy a big advantage in presidential elections, and Senator Kamala Harris is the only major candidate from America’s largest, wealthiest state. Yet she is running a disappointing 4th 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 a Three Strikes ballot proposition 72%-28%, and a three strikes bill was also signed into law that same year. From 1982 to 2000, California's prison population increased 500%, rising to nearly 175,000 in 2006.
California's Felony-Murder Law also contributed to mass incarceration. As in some other states, one could be convicted of felony murder simply by virtue of a victim dying during the commission of a felony, even if the defendant did not intend to kill a person, did not know a killing took place, or if the killing was an accident.
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 explains:
“Under California law, this generally would be regarded as the crime of petty theft, misdemeanor punishable by a fine, a jail sentence of six months or less, or both. California law, however, provide[d] a petty theft with a prior conviction for a property offense is a felony offense. Because Andrade had at least two prior convictions, albeit for the non-violent crime of burglary, his petty theft was prosecuted as the felony ‘petty theft with a prior.’”
Andrade was sentenced under the California 3 strikes law to two sentences of 25 years to life imprisonment, to run consecutively. According to Chemerinsky, it was “an indeterminate life sentence with no possibility of parole for 50 years…[as of 2003, there were] 344 individual serving sentences of 25 to life or more for shoplifting—for petty theft with a prior—under California’s three strikes law.”
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%-31%, 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%-40%, reduced certain nonviolent, non-serious crimes to misdemeanors. Senate Bill 1437, which came into effect this January 1, reformed California’s felony-murder law so that it only applies when a defendant:
- directly kills a person in the commission of a felony, or in an attempted felony;
- aids and abets the killing;
- is a major participant in the killing; or,
- when the victim was a peace officer engaged in the performance of his or her duties.
Under the impact of these reforms, California’s prison population dropped to 111,000 by 2015--a 36% 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% to 91%.
According to the California Department of Justice’s 2017 Crime in California report, 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. After the Los Angeles riots in 1992, Republican businessman Richard Riordan won a law-and-order mayoral campaign against moderate Democrat Mike Woo, who was crucified by some over his opposition to the then-popular death penalty. (Woo’s protestations that being mayor of Los Angeles didn’t have anything to do with the death penalty failed to mollify his critics.)
Today 62% of Californians say they prefer life imprisonment for first-degree murderers. In March, newly-elected California Governor 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 to 2017 belies this claim. University of San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon asserts:
“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.
At least California Democrats might be heartened by Harris’ introduction, along with Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), of a bill to encourage states to reform or replace their bail systems. These bail systems currently keep hundreds of thousands of alleged perpetrators—who have been convicted of no crime and are thus legally innocent—in jail simply because they cannot afford their bail.
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.
This is the long version of the column. To read the original column, please see it at the Daily Caller.
- Daily Caller7/10/19