Last night’s vice-presidential debate likely didn’t change many voter’s minds, but it did propel a long-neglected, interconnected policy area onto the national debate stage: Criminal justice, drug, and prison reform. While Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris largely spoke past each other on the subject area, the American people were presented with two distinct choices. And the differences are stark.
The debate moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, got the discussion on criminal justice started by asking the California Democrat about the March killing of the 26-year-old emergency room technician who was gunned down by police officers serving a no-knock drug warrant: “Sen. Harris, in the case of Breonna Taylor, was justice done?”
“I don’t believe so,” Harris replied.
She then recounted the brutal murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which propelled the nation into months of peaceful – and not so peaceful – protests.
“I’m a former prosecutor. I know what I’m talking about. Bad cops are bad for good cops,” Harris argued. “We need reform of our policing in America and our criminal justice system.”
The senator went further though. She called for decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the criminal records of former non-violent drug felons. She also advocated for ending cash bail (which enables the justice system to keep low income people incarcerated, even if they’re innocent), while calling for a ban on private, for-profit prisons.
Harris and former-Vice President Joe Biden also want to create a national registry for officers found guilty of crimes. When it comes to the nation’s police, the daylight between the two major party tickets becomes almost blinding.
“I trust our justice system – a grand jury that reviews the evidence,” Pence said of the judicial system which recently indicted only one of the three officers who killed Breonna Taylor (and he was charged with wanton endangerment; not murder, which enraged and saddened millions nationwide). “And it really is remarkable that as a former prosecutor, you would assume that an impaneled grand jury – looking at all the evidence – got it wrong, but you’re entitled to your opinion, senator.”
An opinion the vice president – and his boss, President Donald Trump – surely reject. Still, Pence doubled down on his innate trust in the American judicial system (in spite of it being a steady source of scorn and judgement from the global community).
“There’s no excuse for what happened to George Floyd. Justice will be served,” Pence said.
In true Trump-Pence fashion, the vice president then changed the conversation on a dime.
“But there’s also no excuse for the rioting and looting that followed,” Pence said. “I must tell you, this presumption that you hear consistently from Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, that America is systemically racist. That as Joe Biden said, that he believes that law enforcement has an implicit bias against minorities, is a great insult to the men and women who serve in law enforcement.”
Pence – a white Midwestern man – then lectured the first female Black major party vice presidential nominee in American history on race. He criticized Harris for helping filibuster a policing bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) earlier this year; even as the legislation was roundly criticized by criminal justice advocates because its centerpiece is to set up a commission to study what millions of Black and Brown folks already know far too well.
“We don’t have to choose between supporting law enforcement, improving public safety and supporting our African American neighbors and all of our minorities,” Pence continued.
Harris wasn’t having any of that.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country. I am the only one on this stage who was personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault or homicide,” Harris said. “This is who we have as the president of the United States. And America, you deserve better. Joe Biden will be a president who brings our country together and recognizes the beauty in our diversity, and the fact that we all have so much more in common than what separates us.”
But Pence didn’t let up. Instead, he went for the jugular.
“When you were [district attorney] in San Francisco, when you left office, African Americans were 19 times more likely to be prosecuted for minor drug offenses than whites and Hispanics. When you were attorney general of California, you increased the disproportionate incarceration of Blacks in California,” Pence said. “You did nothing on criminal justice reform in California. You didn’t lift a finger to pass the first step back on Capitol Hill. I mean, the reality is your record speaks for itself.”
“Having served as the attorney general of the state of California, the work that I did is a model of what our nation needs to do. And we will be able to do under a Joe Biden presidency. Our agenda includes what this administration has failed to do,” Harris said.
The junior senator from California has been attacked for her record as attorney general, even by members of her own party during the Democratic primary, but on Wednesday evening’s national debate stage, she showed pride in her record.
“I was the first statewide officer to institute a requirement that my agents would wear body cameras and keep them on full time. We were the first to initiate a requirement that there would be a training for law enforcement on implicit bias, because yes, Joe Biden and I recognized that implicit bias does exist, Mr. Vice President,” Harris said.
“Contrary to what you may believe, we did the work of instituting reforms that were about investing in reentry. This is the work that we have done and the work we will do going forward,” Harris said. “And again, I will not be lectured by the vice president on our record of what we have done in terms of law enforcement and keeping our communities safe and a commitment to reforming the criminal justice system of America.”
No matter which side of this great American divide you land on, it should have been refreshing to hear both of these politicians discuss these substantive policy issues that impact millions of our fellow citizens every day. So now voters have no excuse to not be fully informed on their criminal justice stances. But they’re just vying for the number two slot.
Now we need to hear what the tops of their respective tickets truly think about criminal justice, the war on ‘drugs,’ boiling racial relations, and a host of other issues they forgot to discuss in their first verbal slap fest of a debate. Hopefully Trump and Biden took notes from their sidekicks and will focus more on critical issues and less on petty jabs when they debate next.