Kamala Harris Unveils Justice Reform Plan Focused on Youth and Families

Kamala Harris speaking in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Gage Skidmore

Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris rolled out a criminal justice reform plan Monday that focused heavily on youth justice and child welfare issues.

Harris’s plans aligns with several fellow Democrats on proposing reforms to the juvenile justice system, but she is the first in the crowded Democratic primary field to talk about addressing some child welfare issues.

A key tenet of Harris’s plan is the creation of a federal Bureau of Children and Family Justice, mirroring the work she did as Attorney General of California where she launched the Bureau of Children’s Justice (BCJ) in 2015.

Jill Habig, who worked under Harris for many years, first as a special assistant attorney general, and then as her deputy campaign manager during Harris’ 2016 Senate run, said Harris has had a long-standing interest in rethinking how we create “safe and thriving communities.”

“And you can’t have that conversation without children,” Habig told The Imprint earlier this year.

Harris’s federal Bureau of Children and Family Justice would “work across agencies in supporting communities and families, including investing in healthcare, education, jobs, and other wrap around services,” according to the blueprint laid out on her campaign website.

Through the California BCJ, Harris worked to address issues in the child welfare system, like ensuring counties were complying with laws around reporting and investigating allegations of child abuse.

Her new federal plan promises to “address the broken child welfare system,” by collaborating with California Rep. Karen Bass (D) and the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth to ensure foster youth have the “services they need to heal from trauma and grow into healthy, thriving adults.” Harris also proposes investing money to incentivize states to mimic California’s Center for Youth Wellness, which screens for adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and treats toxic stress.

Harris’s plan specifically identifies the goal of disrupting the child welfare to justice system pipeline. Research shows that children in foster care are significantly more likely to become involved in the justice system either as a juvenile or an adult.

In the vein of juvenile justice, Harris also proposes investing in restorative justice programs at the state and local level in an effort to end juvenile incarceration with the exception of “the most serious crimes.”

Also on her slate of juvenile justice reforms: ending juvenile life sentences and offering sentence reduction to incarcerated individuals who were sentenced to 20 years or more for crimes committed as minors, ending solitary confinement of youth and prohibiting the transfer of youth to the adult prison system.

Like the California BCJ, Harris suggests that the federal Bureau of Children and Family Justice would focus on the educational system as a feeder into the justice system by addressing “discriminatory practices in suspensions and expulsions.” Her campaign website touts the BCJ’s success in an investigation of the Stockton Unified School District, which in 2013 was found to be arresting children at an alarming rate for minor school discipline issues.

Harris’s plan also lays out ideas avoiding the fallout families face when parents are incarcerated, like making it easier for families to visit their loved ones in prison, creating free access to video conferencing and expediting restoration of parental rights for people upon release. A growing body of research points to the negative impacts parental incarceration has on children.

Harris’s experience as a law enforcement professional has been a source of mixed reaction throughout her campaign. She released this reform plan days before the third Democratic debate, scheduled for Thursday, September 12, where she will face off against fellow Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker along with other frontrunners like former Vice President Joe Biden and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

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