Kamala Harris Forced To Defend Her Changing Criminal Justice Views

"When you had the power, why didn't you try to effect change?" asked ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis.

ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis drew some of the loudest applause of the night at Thursday’s Democratic presidential debate with a simple question for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) about her record on crime.

“You used to oppose the legalization of marijuana; now you don’t. You used to oppose outside investigations of police shootings; now you don’t,” Davis said, referring to Harris’ positions in her former role as California attorney general. “You’ve said that you changed on these and other things because ‘You were swimming against the current and thankfully, the currents have changed.’”

“But when you had the power, why didn’t you try to effect change then?” Davis asked as the room erupted in cheers.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks at the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) speaks at the Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by ABC at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Harris has faced criticism from progressives over her record as California’s top prosecutor. Her truancy policy resulted in criminal prosecutions of parents, for example, and she was unwilling to take on the state’s death penalty.

The senator handled Davis’ question pretty well though, saying there have been “many distortions” of her record and pivoting to her achievements.

“I took on the position that allowed me, without asking permission, to create one of the first-in-the-nation initiatives that was a model, and became a national model, around people who were arrested for drugs and getting them jobs,” Harris said. “I created one of the first-in-the-nation requirements that a state law enforcement agency would have to wear cameras and keep them on full time. I created one of the first-in-the-nation trainings for police officers on the issue of racial bias and the need to reform the system.”

Harris conceded there was plenty more she could have done in her former job, but noted that her newly released criminal justice plan includes bold ideas like ending mass incarceration, ending solitary confinement and shutting down for-profit prisons on her first day in the White House. That last proposal drew applause.

“As president of the United States, knowing the system from the inside, I will have the ability to be an effective leader and get this job complete,” she said.