Politics & Government

Sen. Kamala Harris touts first big bill as Dems ponder 2020

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a rally against the repeal or replacement of Obamacare, at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif
U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., at a rally against the repeal or replacement of Obamacare, at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, Calif AP

Sen. Kamala Harris demonstrated her loyalty Thursday to key national Democratic constituencies she would need if she seeks the White House – African-American and Hispanic voters – as she unveiled her first major bipartisan bill, a bid to revamp the bail bond system.

Her office touted the new legislation as her first big bipartisan bill introduction since she took office in January. The bill, co-sponsored by 2016 Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., aims to change the practice of keeping those awaiting trial in jail until they can come up with the money for bail.

It’s an effort that could have broad appeal to voters who want to see Congress advance criminal justice reform.

“Excessive money bail disproportionately affects communities of color, as studies have shown that African American and Hispanic defendants are more likely to be detained pretrial than white defendants and less likely to be able to post money so they can be released,” said the joint statement from Harris and Paul. Paul’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Harris said that her bill was not an effort to help her national stature: “This is about correcting something that’s broken in our system, and that’s what I came to D.C. to do,” Harris told McClatchy.

She said there was “nothing new or recent” about her focus on the issue or her decision to collaborate with Paul. She cited her 2009 book, “Smart on Crime,” and said she first approached Paul about the issue when she was California’s Attorney General, her job before coming to the Senate.

But the California Democrat is regarded as a potentially strong 2020 presidential hopeful and she has Democratic operatives around the country talking.

Elected last year in the nation’s biggest state by a comfortable margin, Harris has consistently said she’s not thinking about a presidential campaign. She’s taking steps that suggest she’s getting in position, however. Harris spent last weekend with top Democratic donors in New York’s posh Hamptons. She’s made speeches this year to national constituencies, raised money for colleagues and begun to establish relationships with national reporters.

Kamala Harris was elected to represent California in the U.S. Senate in 2016. She got her start in California politics in the 1990s working as a local district attorneyHarris says her family roots are behind her political efforts today.

Harris and Paul’s bill would create a $10 million grant over three years to encourage states to replace money bail with a system that instead determines the risk of a defendant endangering the community or not showing up for trial.

Civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center support the bill.

“Justice should never be determined by the color of one’s skin or the size of one’s wallet, and we strongly encourage Congress to enact this legislation, which would be a significant step in realizing our nation's promise of liberty and justice for all,” NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Policy Director Todd A. Cox said in a statement.

Harris said the current system works for potentially dangerous criminals, who can get released as long as they have money or ties to groups, such as organized crime.

Police and prosecutors have opposed an effort to end money bail in California, saying bail is the best way to get defendants to show up for trial.

Harris, a former prosecutor, dismissed those concerns and said studies have shown that her approach is better at getting people to turn up for trial.

“There are people who are sitting in jail right now simply because they could not write a check to get out and for no other reason,” Harris said.

Contact: Anshu Siripurapu at 202-383-6009. Twitter: @anshusiripurapu