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Kamala Harris wrote a good book about crime
"Smart on Crime" was seen as banal in 2009, but it's bracing and insightful today
Like most Democrats, I have plenty of thoughts and takes on Kamala Harris. But I recently realized that one way to get a fresh perspective would be to read the book she published back in 2009 when she was District Attorney of San Francisco, “Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Guide to Making Us Safer.”
Having observed her as a senator and a presidential candidate, I was not supportive of her selection as vice president, and I think that skepticism has been mostly borne out. But I was really pretty impressed by this book. It’s not the book I would recommend people read about crime control — that would be Mark Kleiman’s “When Brute Force Fails,” which covers similar ideas in a more scholarly way. But as a book written by a noteworthy politician on an issue that was very low-salience at the time she published it but that has become very high-salience today, it’s remarkably good. Her ideas mostly make sense on the merits. And while not everything she advocates for trying has totally worked out, the book itself rightly calls for experimentation and rigor in analysis. Her central concerns are quite similar to the ones Jennifer Doleac discussed in our interview, just without the full benefit of the nearly 15 years of empirical evidence that’s come in since then.
The book also reflects a political approach that, while out of style during the time Harris was a senator, very much fits the current political moment. As vice president, Harris has a group of political advisors who are no doubt more high-powered than the people she had access to as San Francisco DA. But I wonder how many of them have read this book or considered the merits of her earlier political approach.
After all, the point of the book, more or less, was to help her win what turned out to be the toughest race of her career. In 2010, during a terrible national political environment for Democrats, she had to run a statewide attorney general race against the popular moderate Republican DA of Los Angeles County. That meant reassuring people that the DA of San Francisco wasn’t some Bay Area lunatic, which the book does. Its message is that Harris is, as the title says, a career prosecutor who wants to keep people safe. It’s a good look!
Kamala was a cop
Opponents circulated select quotes from this book during Harris’ presidential run, pointing out that her “tough on crime” posture was an awkward match for progressive politics. I thought that this might prove, upon actually reading the book, to be decontextualized or unreflective of the totality of the work. But I was wrong. If anything, earlier coverage understated the extent to which the book reflects an old-school, tough-on-crime ethic.
For example, here’s how she talks about quality of life and policing in the Tenderloin:
Our Tenderloin District has long been a crime-ridden area. Within its borders is drug dealing, prostitution, and a large number of young children who are neglected and exposed to crime. Historically, a police officer who sees someone breaking into a car would arrest the offender, who later would be released and told to come back to court on a future date. The problem was, too many never made it back to court.
Why? Many people who are living on the streets there are suffering from addiction and mental illness but are receiving no treatment. Turning a blind eye dooms a lot of individuals and turns the neighborhood into a dangerous, dirty, crime-ridden zone. Our Community Justice Center is a collaborative, problem-solving center with a court on site, designed to provide accountability for lower level criminal behavior and at the same time to address the root issues associated with this behavior, such as substance abuse, mental illness, and lack of shelter. The center is based on the principle of immediacy — immediacy of consequences and immediacy of services. The key is having everything under one roof: criminal justice agencies, service providers, and members of the bench. It’s a simple but effective model.
And here’s what she says about dealing with street gangs:
Traditionally, we have focused on trying to bring down the leaders of gangs in hopes that the rest of the gang will scatter and dissolve. However, that is not achieving the success and safety we demand. The status quo on gangs today is unacceptable’ traditional approaches are insufficient. So, how do we attack this cancer? We must begin with an unequivocal No Tolerance strategy. That means a tough on comprehensive approach that both cracks down on gang members and ends the cycles that have created generations of gang activity. To accomplish this goal, it is necessary to apply the principles we have discussed throughout this book. First, we need more intense, coordinated, and sophisticated law enforcement efforts to apprehend, prosecute, and disrupt the activities of gang members and leaders. Second, we need to figure out how to prevent the entry of young, vulnerable individuals into gangs and also enfranchise communities victimized by gangs in the larger cause of fighting them. Finally, we need to break the cycle of crime and focus more strategically on the re-entry of gang members from jail or prison back into their communities. This transition is an opportunity to break their criminal bonds and redirect their activities instead of letting their time in prison bind them even more tightly to gangs.
This is bracing stuff, and I think it captures something important about her broader thinking; Harris is a progressive in the sense that her work is informed by progressive values, like funding social services and assisting the most vulnerable. But she is also a true believer in the power and value of coercion. She pairs her concern for addressing root causes with a focus on compliance and making sure people follow the rules.
When she does advocate for more de-carceral efforts — a program called Back on Track “and other diversion programs aimed at first-time offenders around the country” — it’s restricted to very limited measures for non-violent offenders with no record. Elsewhere she writes that “there can be no backing off the arrests and prosecutions of these violent offenders,” calling for realism about the fact that most violent crime charges aren’t murders and the offenders do eventually get out of prison.
She also writes at length about the difficulty prosecutors have in securing witness cooperation to make it feasible to prosecute serious crimes. She denounces the “stop snitching” ethic and also calls for more investment of resources in witness protection programs, noting that pragmatically, this is why effective police departments need to care about community relations and not engage in alienating racial profiling. She calls for more support in terms of counseling and therapy for crime victims to prevent spirals of retaliation or post-traumatic lashing out.
She wants to stop people from cycling in and out of prison by getting them the help they need to stay on the right side of the law, not just locking them up forever. But she also thinks the threat of incarceration is needed to make sure they actually get that help.
Rules need consequences
Chronic absenteeism has soared in America’s schools since Covid. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “compared to a typical school year prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 72% of U.S. public schools reported an increase in chronic absenteeism among their students” and 17% of total students were chronically absent. This is happening in basically every state, and I think the issue deserves much more attention than it’s getting.
Probably the most idiosyncratic thing Harris talks about in this book is her effort as DA to crack down on chronic absenteeism, or as she calls it, “truancy.”
And again, she frames the truancy crackdown as “smart” rather than merely “tough” on crime, because when kids fall off the track of schooling and employment they are likely to end up committing crimes. Her approach here, which seems shockingly simple given national inaction in the face of the absenteeism surge, was to actually try and enforce the rules that require parents to send their kids to school. The point she makes about this is that it’s not like she had to go round up all the parents whose kids weren’t going to school and throw them in the slammer. Instead, every parent got a threatening letter from the head of San Francisco Public Schools about how the DA was planning a crackdown. That alone increased attendance. But parents who continued to be non-compliant were summoned to a meeting with school staff and a prosector to ratchet up the pressure. To the extent that parents could articulate specific barriers to getting their kids to school, the authorities were supposed to help them address those barriers. Actually prosecuting was a last resort, not the desired outcome, but having the stick available helped make the whole rest of the chain work.
Race-neutral, not race-blind
Progressives are, of course, aware that people need to be coerced sometimes. Everyone is very excited about prosecuting the 1/6 rioters and the various cases against Donald Trump. I saw a tweet the other day from Bernie Sanders’ top policy guy about how you need harsh sanctions against repeat lawbreakers if you want them to stop.
This is just to say that while people disagree around the margins, I don’t think anyone actually believes that punishment and deterrence aren’t important or that all illegal behavior can be addressed with social services.
What’s at issue on the subject of street crime is that progressives have become very worried about the specter of disparate racial impact. In the book, Harris handles that in a pre-Kendi way that takes actual discrimination seriously and treats disproportionality as potential evidence of discrimination but not bad per se. After all, problems are not evenly spread throughout society. She writes about the social problems caused by illegal gambling operations concentrated in San Francisco’s Chinatown. If her solutions are correct, then it is primarily the Asian community that benefits from the crackdown. It’s also true that the burden of sanctions will fall disproportionately on Asians. Are her solutions correct? That’s an interesting question, but the mere fact that the problem is non-randomly distributed is neither here nor there. And it’s exactly the same for her diagnosis of the gangs issue.
What’s progressive about this?
Reading the book, you might occasionally ask yourself why the author is on the left at all.
And the answer, of course, is that she has mainstream Democratic Party views on a range of other public policy questions. Kamala Harris thinks that abortion should be legal, that climate change is an important problem, and that the government should help everyone get health care. She is “smarter” on crime than a right-winger because as someone who believes in public services and the welfare state, she wants to complement public order policing with the offer of treatment for addicts. Precisely because she’s a Democrat who believes in taxes, she’s comfortable calling for more resources on multiple fronts simultaneously — more rehabilitative programming in prisons, more re-entry support, more police on the streets, more shot-spotter and other surveillance technology, more witness protection, more victim services. She’s also “smart” in the sense that as a law enforcement practitioner, she is aware that you need to operate within a budget constraint and that “just make the sentences longer” is often not the cost-effective choice.
At the end of the day, though, what’s progressive about this iteration of Kamala Harris is that her approach to crime control is embedded in larger progressive ideas — we shouldn’t tolerate racial profiling, we should care about victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, we should be optimistic about the ability of public schools to improve people’s lives — but doesn’t challenge the basic idea that it’s good to arrest and imprison people when they commit crimes.
A 2010 Politico article notes that while the book was respectfully received, it didn’t make the kind of splash Harris hoped it would. But the political discourse has changed a lot since then and the salience of the issues she’s writing about has risen dramatically — the level of violence is now quite a bit higher than it was when the book came out. I think she would do well to re-read it and have all her current advisors read it and think about how to tap into these ideas and the place they came from.