WASHINGTON — If there’s one thing Sen. Kamala Harris learned from her time as the chief prosecutor of San Francisco and attorney general of California, it’s that young people don’t know what they’re doing, a video of Harris speaking in 2015 shows.
During a keynote address at a symposium hosted by the Ford Foundation, the then–California attorney general — now Democratic candidate for president — laid out her vision for a crime recidivism reduction initiative in Los Angeles.
The program, modeled on a similar initiative that Harris launched in San Francisco, would provide social services to young people 18 to 24 who were convicted of nonviolent felonies.
Why that population?
People that age are “stupid,” Harris told the audience.
“What’s the other thing we know about this population? And it’s a specific phase of life. And remember, age is more than a chronological fact. What else do we know about this population, 18 through 24? They are stupid,” Harris said, to wide laughs from the audience.
“That is why we put them in dormitories, and they have a resident assistant. They make really bad decisions. So we focused on that age population. [...] When I was at Howard University, and we were in college, we were 18 to 24, and you know what we were called? College kids,” Harris said with a loaded pause.
"It was a joke," a spokesperson for the Harris campaign said of the candidate's remarks.
Based on a similar program called “Back on Track” she launched as the San Francisco district attorney, its sister program in Los Angeles created social services that aimed to help “non-violent, non-sexual, non-serious” felons reintegrate into their communities. These included financial literacy training, child support services, and housing assistance.
The public-private partnership involved the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Probation Department, along with the Ford Foundation and a California-based charter school system.
But while laying out her vision for “smart on crime” criminal justice reform in California, Harris told the symposium audience that the smartest way to address crime recidivism is by preventing it –– which means targeting young people.
Harris also emphasized that while 18-year-olds can be charged and convicted of crimes as adults, they’re still developmentally young.
“When you turn 18 and you’re in the system, you’re considered an adult. Period,” Harris said. “Without any regard to the fact that this is the very phase in life in which we have invested billions of dollars in colleges and universities, knowing that is the prime phase of life, during which we mold and shape and direct someone to become a productive adult.”
San Francisco’s Back on Track program allowed first-time drug offenders to take high school classes and get a job rather than go to prison; it reported that fewer than 10% of its graduates committed new offenses. While it was geared toward people aged 18 to 24, Harris said during the Ford Foundation speech, people up to 30 years old were also taking advantage of the program.
Harris has touted her involvement in rolling out Back on Track as evidence of her self-styled record as a “progressive prosecutor.”
In her Ford Foundation speech, she said the San Francisco program “was fabulous.”
“This is what I love about being elected. Because basically, you don’t have to ask anybody permission,” she laughed. “So, [I] pulled out a yellow pad and said, OK, I’m DA of a big city in the country. Let’s focus on a specific population and see what we can do to re-enter them in a way that they don’t re-offend.”
Young voters are poised to play a bigger role in the 2020 election than they did in 2016, with 43% of voters ages 18 to 29 saying they will vote in their party’s primary or caucus.
And by Election Day next year, a Harvard Institute of Politics survey reported this spring, the Millennial and Generation Z generations will comprise more than one-third of the eligible voting population.
Cover: California Sen. Kamala Harris speaks during the 25th Essence Festival at Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 6, 2019, in New Orleans. (Photo by Josh Brasted/FilmMagic)