Even just a decade ago, it would be easy to make the argument that voters of all stripes liked their politicians to be “tough on crime.” In both parties, former prosecutors wore their law enforcement experience as badges of honor.
But now, many Democratic voters have turned against this approach, in favor of criminal justice reforms that would throw out many mandatory minimum sentences, decriminalize many drug crimes, and reduce jail populations.
And that change of heart is threatening the presidential hopes of Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former prosecutors just recently viewed as some of the party’s best.
Klobuchar served as Hennepin County Attorney from 1999 to 2007 before easily winning her Senate seat and two reelection bids. Klobuchar, positioning herself as a pragmatist, says that her time running a large prosecutor’s office and getting results means that she “is actually the best person to put in front of the ticket if you care about criminal justice reform.”
But now, criminal justice advocates that Klobuchar declined to charge even one police officer involved in more than two dozen civilian fatalities during her time as prosecutor. At a candidate forum in July, Klobuchar drew a negative reaction from the crowd when she said it “is for the justice system to decide” whether to charge the NYPD officer responsible or Eric Garner’s death.
Harris served as both San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general before joining the Senate in 2017. Unlike Klobuchar, Harris is positioning herself as a reformer and says that her past record reflects that. She describes herself as a progressive who saw that the best opportunity to change the system was by participating in it.
Supporters tout her work in implementing prison diversion programs and police bias training. But critics say her record proves that she fought to keep people found proven innocent behind bars, defended the death penalty, and refused to investigate police shootings.
Despite Harris and Klobuchar both enjoying broad popularity in their home states, they are failing to catch fire with presidential primary voters. Klobuchar’s poll numbers have been consistently stuck in the low single digits, while Harris’s star has faded after some initial excitement.
There are probably many more factors at play than their prosecutorial pasts. And it is true that elected officials often make tough decisions and compromises – no matter what office they hold – to advance a broader policy vision.
But many big city prosecutors held office during an era when voters wanted tough on crime approach. And that means voters will now have to choose what’s more important: what their record was back then, or what they are saying about the future.