Sen. Amy Klobuchar addressed her record as a Minnesota prosecutor Monday after managing to sail through her Democratic presidential campaign relatively unscathed on the topic.
Vice News moderators at the Iowa 2020 Brown & Black Presidential Forum pressed the moderate Democrat on her “tough on crime” record as chief prosecutor for Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis and is Minnesota’s most populous county. Criminal justice reform advocates have criticized Klobuchar’s aggressive prosecution, including a push for harsher sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, for helping fuel the mass incarceration of brown and Black people.
“First of all, I know my record back then. And we had a 12% reduction in African American prison incarceration in the years that I was in the office,” Klobuchar said of her time as prosecutor from 1999 to 2007. “That was because I did emphasize drug court and I’ve been a leader of it in the U.S. Senate and led the efforts since [Sen.] Ted Kennedy died on the federal level.”
The forum moderators said that despite the decline in Black incarceration during Klobuchar’s time, African Americans were still imprisoned at 22 times the rate of white people.
Klobuchar’s policies as a prosecutor reflect the “tough on crime” approach to criminal justice issues often applauded and encouraged at the time. But as the Democratic Party shifts to the left, the country’s view of criminal justice has also shifted from a punitive stance to a more rehabilitative and restorative one.
“As a prosecutor, Klobuchar was not the worst or the most callous toward the plight of those prosecuted by her office, and at the time, her methods were not seen as extreme,” Sarah Lustbader, a lawyer and writer for The Appeal, wrote last year. “But she ramped up incarceration in ways that were wrongheaded and cruel.”
Klobuchar said Monday that while she acknowledges her past, she knows what she has to do going forward. The senator “learned so much from that job” and from her time in the Senate about “the persistent institutional racism that we see in the criminal justice system.”
She mentioned the need for videotaping police interrogations and using body cameras, as well as staffing police departments and prosecutor’s offices to reflect the communities they serve. Klobuchar also brought up criminal sentencing reform, noting that she ― along with former 2020 presidential candidates Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) ― co-sponsored the First Step Act, bipartisan legislation aimed at reducing recidivism.
“Well, we got that done. But it’s not enough,” Klobuchar said. “We have to move to the ‘Second Step Act,’ because 90% of people incarcerated are in local and state prisons.”
Klobuchar has gotten far less heat for her time as a prosecutor than Harris, who served as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general and who faced intense scrutiny, mostly from the progressive left, about her record. Throughout her campaign, Harris attempted to combine her progressive stance as a senator and presidential candidate with the more traditional positions she held as a prosecutor. She dropped out of the race in December due to her campaign’s financial struggles.
Asked Monday if she had any regrets during time as a prosecutor, Klobuchar said, “Of course, there’s always cases.”
“One of the major things I would change, knowing what I know now, is back when I had my job, all of the county attorneys … would use a grand jury for police shootings,” she said. “It actually felt like, ‘OK, get the community to say it so you don’t look like you’re using your own bias or political bias to make a decision.’ I actually no longer think that that’s the right way to do it. I think you should take personal responsibility.”
Klobuchar mentioned the case of Philando Castile, a Black man who was shot and killed by a St. Anthony, Minnesota, police officer during a routine traffic stop in 2016. The case was prosecuted by Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.
“He did put everything into that case. Unfortunately, the jury came back not guilty,” Klobuchar said. “But there’s an example, prosecutors have to take responsibility for the cases in front of them and make the decisions on hard calls.”
Klobuchar’s campaign has put a lot of stock in finishing strong in Iowa, where the caucuses will begin in just a few weeks. The Midwestern senator has been gaining momentum in the race, most recently on Sunday after she was endorsed by Iowa’s Quad-City Times and co-endorsed with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) by The New York Times.