Sen. Kamala Harris launches bill to help public defenders

PHOTO: In this Wednesday, May 1, 2019, file photo, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller Report on Capitol Hill in Washington.PlayAP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., will unveil a bill Wednesday morning aimed at helping public defenders, a position she knows well after staring them down as a prosecutor for over two decades in the state of California.

The 2020 presidential candidate's experience as a district attorney in Alameda County and San Francisco inspired her to take a closer look at the profession and give it a boost with the introduction of the Equal Defense Act.

"After spending my career around the criminal justice system, I've seen up close how it can fail to ensure that poor defendants receive a fair trial and due process, as guaranteed to all of us in our Constitution,” Harris said.

She called public defender offices across the country "underresourced, understaffed and overworked."

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The Associated Press
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., listens as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 1, 2019.

"Even capable, well-intentioned attorneys cannot physically devote the time necessary to provide effective counsel to all their clients," Harris said.

The California senator's proposal would establish a $250 million grant program, which would put a cap on the amount of work full-time public defenders can take on, bridge the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors within five years, and generate yearly data on workloads. It would also allocate $5 million for "comprehensive training for public defenders."

It would also triple funding for an existing program that gives loan repayment deals to lawyers pursuing public defense work.

If passed, the bill would also require the main provider of federal criminal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions to provide information about how much each state is matching public defenders to those who need it the most.

Her office said that the combination of approaches is an attempt to help even the playing field for those who pursue public defense.

PHOTO: In this Wednesday, May 1, 2019, file photo, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller Report on Capitol Hill in Washington. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
In this Wednesday, May 1, 2019, file photo, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., speaks as Attorney General William Barr testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Mueller Report on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Harris said the way the system exists right now is the "opposite of justice."

"All too often, our public defenders are overworked and lack sufficient resources," she said. "This makes public defense unsustainable over the long haul. And the person who suffers is the defendant, whose liberty is on the line."

The candidate has been criticized for her previous work as a prosecutor. San Francisco law professor Lara Bazelon wrote in a scathing New York Times op-ed in January, if Harris "wants people who care about dismantling mass incarceration and correcting miscarriages of justice to vote for her, she needs to radically break with her past." A spokesperson for Harris told CNN those accusations were taken out of context.

She has also been criticized for her refusal to prosecute current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's OneWest Bank for foreclosure violations in 2013 and defending the death penalty in California even though she said she personally disagreed with it.