Kamala Harris rightly campaigns on ending the death penalty, but her vow to severely punish violent crime reinforces mass incarceration

The last major party presidential candidate to campaign on ending the death penalty was Michael Dukakis in 1988. The Massachusetts governor told a national debate audience that he would not favor capital punishment even in the case that his wife was raped and killed. 

As NBC News notes in this retrospective, his bloodless answer is considered to have been a major campaign error.

Certainly, that is the lesson that major party politicians took from his response, which is at least part of why Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, despite their many other differences, all agreed that the death penalty should sometimes be used.

In a January 23 interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, California Democratic Senator Kamala Harris sought to break this bipartisan tradition by declaring a steadfast opposition to the death penalty. 

“I believe that the death penalty is extremely flawed as a system, I have always been opposed to the death penalty,” she told Maddow. 

She went on to explain that she does not believe it to be a deterrent to criminals. “Nobody ever stood there and was about to pull the trigger and then decided, ‘Hm, is this going to be life without possibility of parole or the death penalty before they decide to pull the trigger,’” she said. 

It’s worth noting that Harris has long said she is personally opposed to the death penalty, but still helped defend the practice as California Attorney General. The interview on Maddow suggests that Harris will be taking a clear stance against capital punishment during her presidential campaign.

But in explaining her opposition to the death penalty, Harris reinforced the logic of America’s prison system. 

“I absolutely believe there should be severe and serious consequence for violent crime which is why I prosecuted those crimes and will always seek the highest sentence consistent with the facts of the case,” she explained.

Harris’s declaration that she wants to severely punish violent crime is not politically controversial. In 2016, Vox and Morning Consult polled Americans about criminal justice reform. They found that just 29 percent of Americans believed in reduced sentences for people who “committed a violent crime and have a low risk of committing another crime.” 

Whether you believe in harshly punishing violent crime is largely a matter of personal philosophical preference. If you happen to share neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky’s view of the world (and I mostly do), you might say that most human behavior is genetically, culturally, and environmentally defined, and that crime is largely a public health issue, not an issue of simply good and evil people. Thus we should try to incarcerate people for the least possible time, while focusing on rehabilitation and doing our best to ameliorate the conditions that create crime in the first place.

It’s fair to say that outside of Norway, that’s not how most people think about it. Most people want violent criminals – people guilty of crimes such as assault, rape, or murder – to suffer. After all, punishing people makes us feel good, and we’re even willing to sacrifice to do it.

OK, we can agree to disagree on the philosophical argument about punishment.

I’m going to lose that one with at least seventy percent of Americans. 

But let’s agree on the math.

America’s prisons are not crowded with mostly nonviolent offenders. That’s a myth, as Vox’s very smart criminal justice correspondent German Lopez has pointed out.

The majority of people sitting in prison today committed violent crimes. Check out this graphic from the Prison Policy Initiative:


Over the past decade, we’ve seen a vigorous and bipartisan criminal justice reform movement that’s done really good work in reducing prison populations with minimal impact on violent crime rates – and it’s been very popular with the public. Let’s remember that President Trump, who has campaigned obsessively about the threat of violent crime, signed into law the biggest federal prison reform packages in decades. Most Americans of both major parties, and plucky independents like me, want to see reform.

But the politics has been relatively easy because these efforts are aimed at nonviolent offenders.

When politicians promise that they will significantly reduce prison populations, it is fair to ask how they plan to do so without changing the way violent crime is punished. 

During the Wisconsin Gubernatorial election, the Democratic candidate Tony Evers said he wanted to reduce the state’s prison population by half. Incumbent Republican Governor Scott Walker countered that the majority of the Wisconsin prison population is composed of violent offenders. Evers countered that he would not be focusing on releasing violent offenders, essentially admitting Walker’s point. That means that no matter what Evers chooses to do in Wisconsin, if he holds by his promise to basically leave the violent offender population as is, he can’t even come close to reducing the population by half.

We can expect this scenario to play out time and time again unless politicians are forced to directly confront the reality of what is really driving mass incarceration in America. We have a considerable amount of violent crime, and Americans by and large are in favor of punishing that crime quite harshly.

Is there any real hope for that changing? There are signs that there are cracks in America’s violent crime consensus.

As whipsmart criminologist John Pfaff notes, the ruby red state of Wyoming is currently moving to make unsupervised parole an option for a number of violent crimes, including manslaughter and aggravated assault. Reformist Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner is testing the waters on lowering murder charges.

While I focused on Harris in this post, it’s worth noting that the entire current crop of presidential candidates has mostly been mum on the issue of changing how we punish violent crime. Likely entrant Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing candidate and an independent democratic socialist who is defeating every Democrat except for former Vice President Joe Biden in current polling, has more or less entirely avoided the issue.

Of all of the contenders, the only one I know of who has ever publicly talked about the need to punish violent offenders less harshly is New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who is likely to run. It remains to be seen whether Booker will be willing to raise the issue on the campaign trail when he is likely to be competing for key constituencies against a dedicated tough-on-crime warrior like Biden.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s