As district attorney of San Francisco, Kamala Harris supported higher bail amounts on gun-related charges, sparking a fight with the city’s public defender and defense attorneys who argued the measures would disproportionately affect the poor.
But in her career on the national level, Harris has sought to address the disproportionate impact of cash bail on poor defendants. The senator has made reducing the burden of bail a part of her 2020 Democratic presidential campaign and Senate tenure. She introduced legislation in July 2017 with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul to encourage changes or replacement of the cash bail system, which requires those awaiting trial to put up a specified amount of money to be released from jail.
“It’s long past time to address bail reform across the country,” Harris said in a February 2019 tweet. “Too often, poor people sit in jail because they don’t have the money to pay bail, while someone with the same offense but money in their back pocket gets out. This is a serious injustice.”
Harris’ early tenure as district attorney in 2004, however, shows she once viewed higher bail amounts as a way to fight what she said was a public safety issue. She argued at the time that San Francisco’s low bail meant criminals traveled to the city to commit crime because the punishment there was “cheaper” than surrounding counties.
Harris’ presidential campaign spokesman Ian Sams told CNN’s KFile that Harris was responding to an increase in gun homicides and illegal guns in the city and that her efforts today still take into account the threat a defendant poses when considering bail.
“Fifteen years ago, as gun homicides were reaching record proportions in San Francisco, Kamala Harris took action to ensure illegal guns or gun crimes were prosecuted and that those arrested for perpetrating these crimes were not able to easily endanger city residents,” Sams told CNN in an email. “Harris remains firmly committed to curbing gun violence, and her bill to reform the money bail system takes into consideration whether the defendant poses a threat to the safety of the community.”
Harris took office as district attorney in January 2004 after campaigning on tackling the issue of gun violence. Harris immediately took an aggressive stance in office on gun crime, beginning with a review of the bail schedule of San Francisco by comparing it with four other counties in the Bay Area. The review showed, according to reports, San Francisco’s bail was significantly lower than surrounding counties.
“We’re trying to address a public safety issue,” Russ Giuntini, the chief assistant district attorney said in April 2004 to The Recorder, a legal newspaper based in San Francisco. “We don’t want San Francisco to be a sanctuary for people who are hell-bent on violence.”
Giuntini cited the murder earlier that month of San Francisco police officer Isaac Espinoza, who was shot to death by an AK-47, as bringing the issue of guns “to the forefront in terms of the public.”
Harris’ office faced immediate pushback on their efforts to increase bail amounts from defense attorneys and from Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, and head of the city’s office providing legal assistance to the poor.
“When you’re poor and you can’t afford bail, then there’s a great deal of pressure to plead guilty simply to get out of jail,” Adachi told The Recorder in response. “We don’t know what other counties are using to determine what a reasonable bail is….most people don’t even know what the bail schedule is here.”
“These are people who are presumed to be innocent under the law, who have had no chance to present their side of the story,” added criminal defense attorney Scott Sugarman, of San Francisco’s Sugarman & Cannon, at the time.
A month later, Harris’ office announced new charging policies related to gun crimes, including seeking 90-day minimum jail sentences for possession of a concealed or loaded weapon, even misdemeanor offenders. The policies included the office arguing for increased bail for gun-related charges.
“We have had 39 homicides in San Francisco this year — almost two murders a week. Twenty-three victims of these homicides have been people under the age of 30, and 26 of these killings have been due to gun violence,” Harris said in a press release. “I’m putting the criminals of San Francisco on notice: I’m going to attack these gun crimes with intensity and focus.”
“I truly believe that we can have the best DA’s office in the state and San Francisco and um, and so on a daily basis, the work that I have to do and where I have to put my mind in terms of my priorities is on things like, you know, sitting down with, with Russ, my chief assistant, and talking with them about the fact that we’re going to change the bail schedule,” she said.
“In San Francisco we are in the process of asking the bench, the judiciary, to re-evaluate the fact that we require people who have been arrested to pay a lot less than other counties,” she added. “And so people come to San Francisco to commit crimes because it’s cheaper to do it. You know, we have to do something about that. Those are the things that I’m spending my time on.”
Harris later specifically cited the need for increased bail in cases involving assault weapons.
Bail schedules, the set amount of bail that defendants are required to pay, were decided by the Superior Court of San Francisco, and Harris’ office had made known their preference for increasing the bail related to gun charges, in opposition to Adachi’s office who pushed for lower bails.
In June 2004, the Superior Court announced dramatic bail increases related to gun crimes in San Francisco County. The San Francisco Chronicle reported bail jumped significantly for assault with a firearm, possessing or selling a machine gun in San Francisco and for selling or possessing assault weapons.
Megan Filly, a spokeswoman for the Superior Court of San Francisco County, told CNN it no longer had bail schedules from 2004, so it is unclear what other increases there were in bail related to gun crimes.
Adachi said in 2004 the new bails would hurt the city’s poor.
“It’s outrageous,” he said. “What the court is doing here is trying to set a new standard of unreachable bails, which will adversely and disproportionately affect the poor.”
Harris’ office, in a report released six months into her tenure as district attorney, touted the new bail schedule as “the toughest of any Bay Area jurisdiction on gun offenses.” In an additional review covering 2004 and 2005 , Harris’ office cited their work to increase bail on gun charges as an accomplishment in combating gun crime.
The office “worked with the Court to increase the bail amounts for illegal possession of guns and other gun crimes,” they wrote.
Following the report, the Superior Court said they did not take into account lobbying from Harris’ office or Adachi’s on the bail schedule.
“We very scrupulously did not consider the advocacy of doing one thing or the other, from either the district attorney or the defense bar,” said then-Superior Court Judge Mary Morgan, who supervised the criminal court.
Ronald Albers, who served as bail commissioner in 2004 and recommended the bail list to criminal judges that year, told CNN he did his own review of bail schedules but said each side had made known their preference.
“Kamala Harris’ side knew they got the court’s attention in terms of gun violence in cases we were seeing, and their rationality was that our bail was out of step with related counties around the Bay Area,” Abers said. “On the defense side of it, Jeff Adachi was going to argue, ‘the bail schedule is too high our clients can’t get out of jail.’ I did my independent review of the seven Bay Area counties and I literally rationalized everything — not just the gun charges — everything that was on our bail schedule. I compared it to other counties and what they had.”
“Yes, I knew they were doing the research, but it was not a part of our evaluation.”
Two years into her term, in 2006, Harris would be credited by police for her efforts to increase bail and tighten loopholes related to drug diversion program. Harris’ office would also take credit on her website that year for working “with the courts to increase bail amounts for gun possession.” When she ran for re-election in 2007, winning with more than 98% of the vote, Harris campaigned on her record on guns.
Defense attorneys, Harris would write in a 2008 letter to the editor in The Recorder, understandably objected to her harsher penalties, but the increased measures resulted in more cases going to trial.
“Before I took office, the average penalty for misdemeanor cases involving concealed, loaded firearms often resulted in sentences of no more than 10 days in county jail,” Harris wrote.
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