Under District Attorney Kamala Harris, the overall felony-conviction rate in San Francisco rose from 52 percent in 2003 to 67 percent in 2006, the highest seen in a decade. Many of the convictions accounting for that increase stemmed from drug-related prosecutions, which also soared, from 56 percent in 2003 to 74 percent in 2006. As California’s attorney general, Harris pushed a punitive initiative that treated truancy among elementary schoolers as a crime for which parents could be jailed. In 2014, she attempted to block the release of nonviolent second-strike offenders from overcrowded state prisons on the grounds that their paroling would result in prisons losing an important labor pool.
The following year, she defended the California state prosecutor Robert Murray after he falsified a defendant’s confession that was used to threaten a sentence of life in prison, and sided with state prison leaders in contesting a transgender inmate’s bid for gender-confirmation surgery. Twice in 2016, she brought criminal charges related to human trafficking against Backpage.com, an online classified website frequently used by sex workers, and later, as a senator, she co-sponsored federal bills that led to the site’s seizure, a move that sex workers and activists said threatens their survival.
In considering the gaps between this track record and the smoothed-over platitudes of The Truths We Hold, one story Harris tells is particularly instructive. Early in the book, she recounts an anecdote from a summer she spent as an intern with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in 1988. “I’ll never forget the time my supervisor was working on a case involving a drug bust. The police had arrested a number of individuals in the raid, including an innocent bystander: a woman who had been at the wrong place at the wrong time and had been swept up in the dragnet,” she writes. “Everything was on the line for this woman, her family, her livelihood, her standing in her community, her dignity, her liberty. And yet she’d done nothing wrong.”
In this story (which she also shared for a New York Times Magazine profile in which she repeated the anecdote about her rap tape), Harris considers a number of factors about the woman’s life that might mean a weekend spent in jail would have life-altering consequences: Does she work weekends? Is she going to have to explain to her employer where she was? Is she going to get fired? Of the woman’s children, Harris wonders: Do they know she’s in jail? The story concludes with the young Harris desperately lobbying a judge to review the innocent woman’s case that same day; fortunately, “with the pound of a gavel, just like that, she was free.”
Though helping to free this woman was indeed a victory, it’s telling that Harris carves out narrative space for this “defining moment” in her own career without dedicating any to the fate or backstories of the others arrested as part of the raid. The vanquishing of a fairly straightforward injustice is a compelling read, but it betrays the circumstances that propelled the anecdote’s other actors into the same courthouse. Harris never offers specifics of the larger story, and disappointingly, the text never questions their innate criminality.
Harris acknowledges in The Truths We Hold that drug crimes were and are among the most disproportionately prosecuted offenses. In her home state and across the country, these kinds of raids tend to target black and Latino populations, upending lives and communities with little evidence of harm committed. Harris’s 2009 book, Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer, did little to incorporate the existential threat that these sorts of arrests posed to communities of color. “Virtually all law-abiding citizens feel safer when they see officers walking a beat,” she wrote then. “This is as true in economically poor areas as in wealthy ones.” It’s an assumption with a glaring oversight.
In The Truths We Hold, the senator allots more space to those who may not “feel safer,” drawing rhetorically from recent activism, including the Black Lives Matter movement. She notes the deep bias baked into policing systems and affirms that the law does not treat all people equally. She endorses the legalization of marijuana (with caveats), despite having literally laughed at the thought in 2014, when her Republican opponent ran to the left of her on the issue. But Harris still writes about the routine upheavals of drug arrests with detached, uninspired prose (“The cases were as easy to prove as they were tragic to charge”) that can read as more facile than humane. A forthright explanation of her intellectual evolution, especially on criminal justice, would have more organically bridged the gap between the two texts.