Kamala Harris Understands Criminal Justice at a Very Deep Level

In 1993, Bill Clinton nominated Janet Reno to be the Attorney General of the United States. Perhaps it was merely a coincidence that the first woman to hold that position came out of the gate talking about crime prevention and the need to intervene early with children. Not many reporters covered that story, but to give you some idea about Reno’s passion on that issue, here are some excerpts of her remarks to the Child Welfare League.

People ask me why I as a prosecutor for 15 years and now as the Attorney General have focused so on the issue of children. Well, in those capacities I am bound to protect the rights of all citizens, including children. But to me children are more than just a segment, more even than the most vulnerable segment of our population. Children are the measure of our effectiveness as leaders, as parents, and as citizens. They are the gauge of our competence, our basic competence as guardians of this Earth and its people.

As a law enforcement officer, I also believe that the protection of children is the cornerstone of any effort in the fight against crime. The way I put it is, as a prosecutor I pick up a pre-sentence investigation of a 17-year-old whom I’ve just filed a petition against for armed robbery and I look at that pre-sentence investigation and see four points along the way where I could have intervened and have made a difference in that child’s life.

That child did not need to be a delinquent. If that child had had an afternoon program to keep them occupied, if that child had had intervention when he saw his father beat his mother, if that child had had strong constructive child care in the first three years, if that child had had appropriate health care to provide prevention for medical problems that had besieged him, we wouldn’t be there filing a petition for delinquency.

As someone who was working in my own community to address the needs of children who were demonstrating early signs of heading towards the criminal justice system, I remember how shocked I was to hear the Attorney General of the United States talk like that. It just wasn’t done. Janet Reno immediately became a hero of mine.

I suppose that it might also be a coincidence that Kamala Harris sounded an awful lot like Janet Reno during an interview she did with Axios on HBO.

With the line, “poverty is trauma inducing,” Harris demonstrated her deep understanding about children. Here is what Paul Tough wrote about that back in 2012.

There are now seven million American children whose families earn below 50 percent of the poverty line. And in the last decade, we learned quite a lot about what it does to children to grow up surrounded by the kind of everyday chaos that often accompanies life in a family that is earning less than $11,000 a year. Neuroscientists and developmental psychologists can now explain how early stress and trauma disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex; how the absence of strong and supportive relationships with stable adults inhibits a child’s development of a crucial set of cognitive skills called executive functions.

In fact, though, you don’t need a neuroscientist to explain the effects of a childhood spent in deep poverty. Your average kindergarten teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood can tell you: children who grow up in especially difficult circumstances are much more likely to have trouble controlling their impulses in school, getting along with classmates and following instructions. Intensive early interventions can make a big difference, but without that extra help, students from the poorest homes usually fall behind in school early on, and they rarely catch up. When you cluster lots of children with impulse-control issues together in a single classroom, it becomes harder for teachers to teach and for students to learn. And when these same children reach adolescence…they are more likely to become a danger to themselves, to each other and to their community.

As Cory Booker noted at the last Democratic debate, we don’t talk enough about the violence of child poverty. But the facts are that it is impossible to separate that issue from the topic of criminal justice reform. Here is how Harris linked them back in 2010.

In those clips, Harris breaks down why we continue to be dumb on crime. Our focus tends to be limited to what we should do after a crime has been committed. That means that, when it comes to politicians, there has been a race to see who can be toughest on the perpetrator.

But if we’re actually concerned about public safety, that means doing whatever we can to stop a crime from happening in the first place. Furthermore, preventing crime means paying attention to children who have experienced trauma. In our patriarchal culture, those issues have been marginalized—particularly as the kind of thing only women care about. To the extent that Harris is right, perhaps it is not a coincidence that women like she, Janet Reno, and Marion Wright Edelman have been the ones to champion the cause of children in an effort to prevent crime.

Harris has taken a lot of heat for her history as a prosecutor. But what she demonstrates in these clips is that she understands criminal justice at an incredibly deep level. As Jeniffer Rubin notes, contrary to what many have suggested, this is an area where Harris leads the pack. Being unburdened by the need to appear “tough,” she is able to articulate how we can be smart on crime.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.