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National

The Clinton Legacy On Fighting Crime And What Democrats Have Learned From It

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Well, one aspect of Bill Clinton's legacy from the '90s that's come in for some criticism - criminal justice, especially from Black Lives Matters activists. Now, these activists say that Bill Clinton's 1994 crime bill contributed to mass incarceration, and Bill Clinton has had to defend the law and his wife's role as first lady in promoting it when she used the term super-predator to describe suspects.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL CLINTON: I don't know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up crack and sent them out onto the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens. She didn't.

CORNISH: Now, Hillary Clinton has since said she shouldn't have used that time, and she's embraced the Black Lives Matter movement. Earlier I asked California attorney general and Democratic candidate for Senate Kamala Harris what she thinks of that legacy and what lessons Democrats have learned from it.

KAMALA HARRIS: I think that there was an atmosphere that encouraged people running for elected office to sound tough as opposed to thinking about what it means to be smart on crime, and by that, I mean achieving the goal that we all want, which is public safety.

And in my career as a prosecutor, I can tell you focusing on prevention is actually one of the smartest and most cost-effective ways to create safe communities, not reacting after a crime has occurred but preventing a crime before it occurs. A lot of what we will talk about is the need to protect victims. Well, guess what? Prevention is about protecting victims.

CORNISH: Another set of speakers up for tonight, Mothers of the Movement, women who have lost sons to violence, women who've lost family members in the hands of police custody. Are Democrats, quote, unquote, "taking a side" here?

HARRIS: No, I don't - I actually reject the notion that there's one side or another. It is a myth to suggest that black communities, communities of color, poor communities don't want law enforcement. We don't want excessive force, but we want law enforcement. So let's start with common ground on that point, and then let's talk about what's going on in terms of the crisis of confidence between law enforcement and the communities that they are sworn to serve.

There are real issues that have to be addressed there. And we also need to heal, and to do that, I strongly believe we must speak truth. We need greater transparency in the system, and then we have to all commit ourselves to improving relationships of trust.

CORNISH: What actions have you taken to try and rebuild trust also with law enforcement who, especially after the police killings in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, are feeling very much as though they're being targeted?

HARRIS: Right. So in California, I run the California Department of Justice. It's the second-largest department of justice in the United States. We maintain an extraordinary amount of Criminal Justice data.

Now, what you probably know about government is we are reluctant to just share our information (laughter).

CORNISH: And people criticize law enforcement for that specifically.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

CORNISH: I mean, right now, there is no real database to...

HARRIS: Absolutely right.

CORNISH: ...Understand police use-of-force fatalities.

HARRIS: Exactly right. So I decided to bust open California Department of Justice's criminal justice data. And we started by rolling out three data sets. I'll give you an example of what the data tells us without any depth of analysis.

African-Americans are 6 percent of California's population and 25 percent of in-custody deaths. So then when people talk to me about, you know, their concern or annoyance with Black Lives Matters, I say, well, hey, guess what? The data bears it out. There are racial disparities in the system. So let's deal with that.

CORNISH: You are a Senate candidate.

HARRIS: Yes.

CORNISH: Due to election rules in California, you're not running against a Republican (laughter) but another Democrat.

HARRIS: Yes, yes.

CORNISH: But this question is for you all the same. Many other candidates across the country are running down ticket from Hillary Clinton, and she has very high unfavorability ratings almost similar to Donald Trump's. When you have a candidate, a nominee who is getting booed - right? - at her own convention, what are your worries going forward into this election season for your party?

HARRIS: I think that there are a lot of people in our party who feel really passionate, and they are shouting because they want to be heard and seen. And I think that is terrific.

Listen. My parents met when they were active the civil rights movement. If those folks hadn't been shouting and marching, (laughter) I wouldn't be here having this interview with you. So I applaud that.

What we saw was the first day of the convention yesterday. But by the end of the day and moving into today and as we go toward Thursday when Secretary Clinton will speak, I believe you're going to see a party that is unified and will certainly be unified as we march toward November.

CORNISH: California Attorney General Kamala Harris, thank you so much.

HARRIS: I appreciate it. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.