Catholic News Agency recently quoted several prominent Catholics who were positive about Joe Biden’s vice-presidential selection of Kamala Harris. Donna Toliver Grimes, for example, who serves as the assistant director for African American Affairs in the Secretariat of Cultural Diversity at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, expressed her belief that a Biden-Harris ticket would have a “policy that is favorable to people on the margins.”
That’s a curious comment, because Harris has spent considerable professional energy oppressing the poor and marginalized. Before we examine that claim, let’s take a step back and revisit the social teachings of the Catholic Church as they relate to the legal status of the poor.
Practicing charity and mercy toward the poor has been explicitly commanded throughout scripture, confirmed by tradition, and repeatedly affirmed by the Magisterium for 2,000 years — most recently in a series of “social encyclicals” that began with Pope Leo XIII’s “Rerum Novarum.” In fact, the church recognizes herself as a special guardian of the poor. As the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” outlines:
The Church’s social doctrine becomes judge and defender of unrecognized and violated rights, especially those of the poor, the least, and the weak.
While the church upholds justice and dignity for all humans, why “especially those of the poor”? Pope Leo XIII explains:
Still, when there is a question of defending the rights of individuals, the poor and badly off have a claim to especial consideration. The richer class have many ways of shielding themselves, and stand less in need of help from the State; whereas the mass of the poor have no resources of their own to fall back upon…
From the perspective of criminal justice, Pope Leo’s words highlight that the poor often have insufficient funds to hire skilled legal representation. They can, therefore, suffer the brunt of well-funded offices of prosecuting attorneys. Unfortunately, that is often just what happens in America. Prosecuting the poor is perhaps the broadest form of selective prosecution in the Western world.
Generally, district attorneys are reluctant to prosecute cases unless they believe they have a good chance of conviction. They are also typically aware that, all other things being equal, criminal convictions are easier to obtain against poor people. Although the right to an attorney is recognized in America, talented or even competent legal representation is not guaranteed, only representation by frequently overworked and routinely underfunded public defenders.
Since they often juggle hundreds of cases at a time, it is practically impossible for public defense attorneys to adequately defend each client. To make matters even worse, public defense offices are often meagerly funded by governments and therefore cannot afford to hire investigators and expert witnesses. Prosecutors, on the other hand, usually have plenty of experts on their payrolls.
Although there are defense attorneys who work tirelessly and heroically for their poor clients, they often simply lack the resources to mount a proper defense, so plea bargains are common. The vast majority of criminal cases in America are against poor people, and a recent study illustrated that 98 percent of felony cases in California were either plea bargained or not contested at all. Cases against poor people are “easy wins” for district attorneys.
Some people reading this might say, “Well, this is because it’s poor people who commit crimes.” Is it? For just one example, consider this. Poor neighborhoods in America are routinely subject to raids, while $50,000-tuition-per-year college campuses — places where drug use, rape, and underage drinking are notoriously commonplace — experience few arrests and even fewer convictions. Why? Largely because it’s much harder to convict someone who has the best legal representation that money can buy.
My brother, Paul Clark, a public defender for poor people in Alaska, notes:
Simply due to their inability to pay even small fines, poor people routinely go to jail, then lose their jobs and lose licenses. When they cannot pay a fine, additional penalties attach, and things get worse and worse. And all this often happens for minor infractions, such as failure to wear a seat belt.
Pope Leo envisioned a system that would vigorously defend the marginalized members of society. Yet far too often, our legal system does the opposite. This brings us to the prosecutorial career of Kamala Harris.
On Cash Bail
One of the most obvious injustices toward the poor in America is the cash bail system. Wealthy people can often afford cash bail and therefore walk free before trial. Poor people often cannot afford bail and therefore must sit behind bars for hours or days before their trials (or plea bargains).
To address this inequity, one might seek the elimination of cash bail or at least a lowering of the expense. Instead, as San Francisco district attorney, Harris pleaded to raise bail costs — using the logic that criminals were traveling to San Francisco to commit crime in a place they knew bail was low. As California attorney general, Harris again argued in favor of cash bail.
Harris has recently come out in favor of bail reform, but this new stance contradicts many years of her actual record as DA and AG. Noting Harris’ record, Harvard Law grad and civil rights attorney Alec Karakatsanis points out, “For her entire career, she used some of the highest money bail amounts in the country to keep people in jail cells and saddle poor families with financial debt.”
On Overturning Wrongful Convictions
It has been well-documented that some people were wrongfully convicted during Harris’s tenure and could have been exonerated after their convictions, but Harris stood in the way. In a New York Times article, Lara Bazelon, former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles, writes:
Ms. 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.
Perhaps every attorney general and DA choose individual points of emphasis for law enforcement. For Harris, a major point of emphasis was truancy — any unexcused absence from school. As San Francisco DA, Harris bragged that she “intended to prosecute parents for truancy.”
In her inauguration speech as California attorney general, she specifically highlighted truancy again, saying, “So, we are putting parents on notice. If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
Harris notes she helped craft a bill that made chronic truancy a misdemeanor for the parents of the student. That bill defined “chronic truant” as a student who had unexcused absences for “10 percent or more of the school days in one school year.”
You might guess that this would carry a $50 fine, and maybe a graduated fine of, say $100 or $200 for second and third offenses. False. This bill, which specifically included “kindergarten” students, made chronic truancy a misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $2,000 and/or one year in prison. Since the passage of this bill, various municipalities of California have conducted “truancy sweeps,” which often result in the parents being led away in handcuffs to prison, where they struggle for bail money and good legal representation.
One sunny morning in the outskirts of L.A. in April 2013, two police officers arrested a woman named Cheree Peoples for the crime of truancy. By mid-April, Peoples’s 11-year-old daughter had missed 20 days of school, which was enough to make an arrest under the law Harris helped draft.
Since birth, Peoples’s daughter Shayla had suffered from sickle-cell anemia which, as the Mayo Clinic explains, can result in “chronic pain,” “bone and joint damage,” and “ulcers.” For Shayla, this excruciating condition landed her in doctor’s offices and hospitals frequently.
Cheree Peoples should be recognized by the city as a devoted and caring mother. Instead, she was led away in handcuffs. Assistant DA Tracy Rinauro explained the logic of such arrests: “If they don’t get an education, the chance of them being criminals or joining a gang increases.” This quote led Cheree to wonder what in her daughter’s life might suggest a future gang membership. This story was noted in some detail in HuffPost, but the vast majority of similar stories go unreported.
Truancy laws aren’t designed to crack down on rich prep school students and their parents. In effect, truancy laws serve as a dragnet against the poor and marginalized. The Marshall Project points out, “the criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty.”
On Drug Enforcement and Prosecution
While her newfound belief in bail reform seems inconsistent with her prosecutorial record, consider Harris’s stance on marijuana use. In a debate last year, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard noted that Harris had put “over 1,500 people in jail for marijuana violations and then laughed about it when she was asked if she ever smoked marijuana.”
When did it become funny for people to lose their jobs over minor infractions? When did it become funny for poor people to sit in prison for days because they can’t afford bail? Either marijuana is a serious issue or not, but one thing it isn’t is funny.
Some Catholics have expressed the hope that Harris will serve the poor and marginalized well as vice-president, but this ignores Harris’s record as district attorney and attorney general. Under a Vice President Harris, we could reasonably expect not so much a war on poverty as a continued prosecution of the poor.
Admittedly, one work of mercy would be in much greater demand: visiting the imprisoned.