Niki Solis Opinion contributor
There has been much talk about the time Sen. Kamala Harris spent as a prosecutor. As a public defender for 24 years, I examined, critiqued, and battled Harris when she was the San Francisco district attorney. And more often than not, Harris and I were on opposite sides.
Having had this experience, I feel compelled to speak on Harris’ record while she was a district attorney. Simply put, Harris was the most progressive prosecutor in the state. This is not an anecdotal opinion. It is based on facts.
As San Francisco DA, Harris refused to seek the death penalty — even on a case where a very respected police officer was tragically killed. Marijuana sales cases were routinely reduced to misdemeanors. And marijuana possession cases were not even on the court’s docket. They were simply not charged. Unless there was a large grow case, or a unique circumstance, this was the reform-minded approach then-DA Harris’ office took. The accusations about marijuana prosecutions being harsh during her tenure are absurd. The reality was quite the opposite.
Trafficking fight and ‘Back on Track’
Sen. Harris’ progressive approach did not end with marijuana prosecutions or lack thereof. She co-founded the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids. She then spearheaded a task force combating the human trafficking of girls. Upon her invitation, I went to the task force meetings to speak on behalf of one of my juvenile clients. My client, a beautiful teenage girl, had aspirations of joining the military. She was selling her body to earn money when her life was cut short; she was found dead in a San Francisco dumpster. Harris and I talked about my client and the exploitation of young girls happening on a constant basis. Unlike her predecessors, she did something about it. She stopped prosecuting young girls for prostitution — acknowledging that they were victims who needed treatment for trauma and not criminals who needed to be incarcerated.
Harris also formalized a court for young adults charged with felonies that resulted in them avoiding a conviction and getting a second chance. She brought in a stalwart progressive community organizer by hiring Lateefah Simon to lead that initiative, a diversionary program called Back on Track that set nonviolent offenders on a path to a new job and helped them rebuild within their communities. Back on Track still exists today and has been a pathway for many young adults to avoid the ravages of a felony conviction or incarceration.
Harris programs adopted statewide
There are many who will criticize me for this piece, but I feel compelled to speak out. Although we as public defenders may have disagreed with Harris at times or wanted more from her office, there is no one who can say that there was a more progressive district attorney in California than Kamala Harris. She implemented and expanded programs that are now the staple of many DA offices up and down the state. Just last month in California, Santa Clara County DA Jeff Rosen said he would no longer seek the death penalty. This comes 16 years after Harris took the same stance in San Francisco.
For those who have heard contrary arguments about Harris’ past work as a prosecutor, rest assured that you are hearing this from someone whose life’s work has been dedicated to the cause of equality and justice. I am the chair of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office Racial Justice Committee and have scratched and clawed for some semblance of justice in our courts for well over two decades.
I grappled with this idea of defending a former prosecutor for a long time, but Harris is more than that. I have to acknowledge the truth and say what I feel is right to set the record straight. Should Joe Biden decide not to select Kamala Harris as a running mate, her track record as San Francisco district attorney should certainly not be one of the reasons.
Niki Solis, a public defender for over two decades, is adeputy public defender in San Francisco and was a manager in the public defender’s office when Kamala Harris served as San Francisco district attorney. Follow her on Twitter: @NikiSolisSF