First, my name is pronounced “comma-la,” like the punctuation mark. It means “lotus flower,” which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.
I had a sense that I wanted to be a prosecutor, that I wanted to be on the front lines of criminal justice reform, that I wanted to protect the vulnerable.
My mother was expected to return to India after she completed her degree. Her parents had an arranged marriage. It was assumed my mother would follow a similar path. But fate had other plans. She and my father met and fell in love at Berkeley while participating in the civil rights movement.
Though the seed was planted very early on, I’m not sure when, exactly, I decided I wanted to be a lawyer. Some of my greatest heroes were lawyers: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley—giants of the civil rights movement. I cared a lot about fairness, and I saw the law as a tool that can help make things fair. But I think what most drew me to the profession was the way people around me trusted and relied on lawyers. Uncle Sherman and our close friend Henry were lawyers, and any time someone had a problem, within the family or the neighborhood, the first thing you’d hear was “Call Henry. Call Sherman. They’ll know what to do. They’ll know how to make sense of this.” I wanted to be able to do that. I wanted to be the one people called. I wanted to be the one who could help. So when it came to college, I wanted to get off on the right foot. And what better place to do that, I thought, than at Thurgood Marshall’s alma mater? • • • Ihad always heard stories about what a wonderful place Howard University was, especially from Aunt Chris, who had gone there. Howard is an institution with an extraordinary legacy, one that has endured and thrived since its founding, two years after the Civil War. It endured when the doors of higher education were largely closed to black students. It endured when segregation and discrimination were the law of the land. It endured when few recognized the potential and capacity of young black men and women to be leaders. Generations of students had been nurtured and edified at Howard, equipped with the confidence to aim high and the tools to make the climb. I wanted to be one of them—and in the fall of 1982, I moved into Eton Towers, my first college dorm.
When I realized that I wanted to work in the district attorney’s office—that I had found my calling—I was excited to share the decision with my friends and family. And I wasn’t surprised to find them incredulous. I had to defend my choice as one would a thesis. America has a deep and dark history of people using the power of the prosecutor as an instrument of injustice. I knew this history well—of innocent men framed, of charges brought against people of color without sufficient evidence, of prosecutors hiding information that would exonerate defendants, of the disproportionate application of the law. I grew up with these stories—so I understood my community’s wariness. But history told another story, too. I knew the history of brave prosecutors who went after the Ku Klux Klan in the South. I knew the stories of prosecutors who went after corrupt politicians and corporate polluters. I knew the legacy of Robert Kennedy, who, as U.S. attorney general, sent Department of Justice officials to protect the Freedom Riders in 1961, and sent the U.S. Marshals to protect James Meredith when he enrolled at Ole Miss the next year. I knew quite well that equal justice was an aspiration. I knew that the force of the law was applied unevenly, sometimes by design. But I also knew that what was wrong with the system didn’t need to be an immutable fact. And I wanted to be part of changing that.
an ironing board makes for the perfect standing desk.
The job of a progressive prosecutor is to look out for the overlooked, to speak up for those whose voices aren’t being heard, to see and address the causes of crime, not just their consequences, and to shine a light on the inequality and unfairness that lead to injustice. It is to recognize that not everyone needs punishment, that what many need, quite plainly, is help.
They took my call to action seriously. Within a month of the meeting, the police department launched a new campaign to try to encourage witnesses to step forward. And in time, we were able to reduce the backlog of unsolved homicides by 25 percent. Not every case could be solved, but we made sure we worked hard to ensure that every one that could be was. Some people were surprised I was so relentless. And I know some others questioned how I, as a black woman, could countenance being part of “the machine” putting more young men of color behind bars. There is no doubt that the criminal justice system has deep flaws, that it is broken in fundamental ways. And we need to deal with that. But we cannot overlook or ignore that mother’s pain, that child’s death, that murderer who still walks the streets. I believe there must be serious consequences for people who commit serious crimes.
I had divided my to-do list into three categories: short-, medium-, and long-term. Short-term meant “a couple of weeks,” medium-term meant “a couple of years,” and long-term meant “as long as it takes.” It was that far side of the ledger where I wrote down the most intractable problems we were facing—the ones you can’t expect to solve on your own, over a term, perhaps even over a career. That’s where the most important work is. That’s where you take the bigger view—not of the political moment but of the historical one. The core problems of the criminal justice system are not new. There are thinkers and activists and leaders who have been fighting to change the system for generations. I got to meet many of them when I was a child. You don’t add the intractable problems to the list because they are new, but because they are big, because people have been fighting against them for dozens—maybe even hundreds—of years, and that duty is now yours. What matters is how well you run the portion of the race that is yours.
Between 2000 and 2014, 95 percent of the growth in the jail population came from people awaiting trial. This is a group of largely nonviolent defendants who haven’t been proven guilty, and we’re spending $ 38 million a day to imprison them while they await their day in court. Whether or not someone can get bailed out of jail shouldn’t be based on how much money he has in the bank. Or the color of his skin: black men pay 35 percent higher bail than white men for the same charge. Latino men pay nearly 20 percent more. This isn’t the stuff of coincidences. It is systemic. And we have to change it.
Something else it’s past time we get done is dismantling the failed war on drugs—starting with legalizing marijuana.
Studies show that the end of third grade is a critical milestone for students. Up until that point, the curriculum focuses on teaching students to learn to read. In fourth grade, there’s a shift, and students transition to reading in order to learn. If students can’t read, they can’t learn, and they fall further behind, month after month and year after year—which forces them onto a nearly inescapable path to poverty. The door of opportunity closes on them when they’re barely four feet tall. I believe it is tantamount to a crime when a child goes without an education.
She told me that a significant percentage of their habitually truant high school students had missed their elementary school classes, too—for weeks, even months at a time. That, to me, was a call to action. The connections were so clear. You could map the path for children who started drifting away from the classroom when they were young. The truant child became the wanderer . . . who became the target for gang recruiters . . . who became the young drug courier . . . who became the perpetrator—or the victim—of violence. If we didn’t see that child in elementary school, where they belonged, chances were we’d see them later in prison, in the hospital, or dead. Some of my political advisers worried that tackling truancy would not be a popular issue. Even today, others don’t appreciate the intention behind my approach; they assume that my motivation was to lock up parents, when of course that was never the goal. Our effort was designed to connect parents to resources that could help them get their kids back into school, where they belonged. We were trying to support parents, not punish them—and in the vast majority of cases, we succeeded. Still, I was willing to be the bad guy if it meant highlighting an issue that otherwise would have received too little attention. Political capital doesn’t gain interest. You have to spend it to make a difference.
I thought about the duality of the immigrant experience in America. On the one hand, it is an experience characterized by an extraordinary sense of hopefulness and purpose, a deep belief in the power of the American Dream—an experience of possibility. At the same time, it is an experience too often scarred by stereotyping and scapegoating, in which discrimination, both explicit and implicit, is part of everyday life.
For as long as ours has been a nation of immigrants, we have been a nation that fears immigrants. Fear of the other is woven into the fabric of our American culture, and unscrupulous people in power have exploited that fear in pursuit of political advantage. In the mid-1850s, the first significant third-party movement in the United States, the so-called Know-Nothing Party, rose to popularity on an anti-immigrant platform. In 1882, an act of Congress banned Chinese immigrants to the country. In 1917, Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in order to establish a host of new restrictions on immigrants, including a literacy requirement. Concerns about growing numbers of newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe resulted in the imposition of immigration quotas in 1924. In 1939, nearly 1,000 German Jews fleeing the Nazis in a ship called the St. Louis were turned away from the United States. A plan to allow 20,000 Jewish children into the country was outright rejected. And shortly after, the U.S. government interned some 117,000 people of Japanese ancestry. More recently, as globalization has robbed the country of millions of jobs and displaced huge swaths of the middle class, immigrants have become convenient targets for blame. When the Great Recession ravaged rural America, a number of Republican politicians pointed to immigration as the problem, even as they filibustered a bill that would have created new jobs. Despite the profound role they have played in building and shaping America, immigrants who come here to seek a better life have always made for an easy scapegoat.
in 2016, researchers at the National Foundation for American Policy found that more than half of Silicon Valley’s billion-dollar startups were founded by one or more immigrants.
According to research published in American Behavioral Scientist, all Latinx immigrants—whether citizens, legal residents, or undocumented—experience the fear of deportation at the same rates. I wanted them to know I had their back.
if DACA recipients were deported, it is estimated that the U.S. economy as a whole could lose as much as $ 460 billion over a decade. These young people are contributing to our country in meaningful ways.
I’ve introduced a bill in the Senate to put body cameras on immigration agents so we can deter such bad behavior and create transparency and accountability.
The problem with mental health care isn’t just cost. It’s also a general lack of qualified providers. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the United States will need to add 10,000 mental health care providers by 2025 just to meet the expected demand.
One study found that children who go through at least six adverse childhood experiences could see their life expectancy reduced by more than twenty years. Physiological stress leads to hypertension, which results in higher rates of infant and maternal mortality, among other conditions. Research has even found that certain levels of stress shorten our telomeres, which are structures that hold our chromosomes together. As we age, our telomeres naturally get shorter until cells start dying, which leads to disease. A study at the University of Michigan measured the telomere length in hundreds of women and found that black women were biologically more than seven years older than white women their age.
It is the story of Americans trapped in a cost-of-living crisis, where everything from housing and health care to child care and education is way more expensive than it used to be while wages remain as low as they’ve been for decades.
How can you dream when, on average, a year of child care for a baby or toddler is more expensive than a year of in-state public college tuition? How can you dream when the cost of higher education has gone up more than three times faster than wages since I was in school in the eighties? How can you dream when you are drowning in student loan debt? How can you dream if you make minimum wage and work forty hours a week, knowing that, in 99 percent of U.S. counties, you can’t afford the market-rate rent on the average one-bedroom apartment? How can you dream when your pay barely budges no matter how hard you work, while everything else keeps getting so much more expensive? How can you dream when your son is sick but you can’t afford your copay or deductible? A middle-class life isn’t what it used to be. And right now it isn’t what it’s supposed to be. Being middle-class ought to mean having financial security and stability. But how is that possible when the cost of living is so high that you live one setback away from catastrophe? An injury. An illness. Nobody expects life to be easy, but it’s not supposed to be a life-altering crisis when your car’s transmission fails. And yet for so many, it is.
According to one survey, 57 percent of Americans don’t have enough cash to cover a $ 500 unexpected expense. That’s one of the reasons I’ve introduced the LIFT the Middle Class Tax Act in the U.S. Senate, a bill that creates a major new middle-class tax credit that would provide eligible families up to $ 6,000 a year—the equivalent of $ 500 a month. Families would be able to receive the credit as a monthly stipend, rather than wait for a refund the following year. It’s a different kind of safety net, one that prevents hardworking people from falling out of the middle class, or gives them a fair shot at attaining it for their families. This is the kind of tax relief we can provide when we stop giving endless tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.
According to a recent report, only 3 percent of job growth in the twenty-first century has come from rural areas.
Millions of Americans recall the blackout of August 2003, when an electricity surge overloaded the grid covering parts of eight northeastern states. Major cities were plunged into darkness. Fire departments rushed to free people from elevators as building temperatures rose. Hundreds of trains were stopped in their tracks, and thousands of passengers had to be rescued from darkened subway tunnels. Waste treatment plants lost power; 490 million gallons of raw sewage were spilled in New York City alone. Cell phone service was disrupted. ATMs went down. Hospitals had to rely on generators to care for vulnerable patients. Analysts later concluded that mortality rates in New York City rose 28 percent during the two-day blackout.
But when you speak to generals, when you speak to senior members of the intelligence community and experts on international conflicts, you will find that they look at climate change as a national security threat—a “threat multiplier” that will exacerbate poverty and political instability, creating conditions that enable violence, despair, even terrorism. An unstable, erratic climate will beget an unstable, erratic world. For example, climate change will lead to droughts. Droughts will lead to famine. Famine will drive desperate people to leave their homes in search of sustenance. Massive flows of displaced people will lead to refugee crises. Refugee crises will lead to tension and instability across borders.
We’ve gotten used to the idea that software will need to be tweaked and updated. We don’t have any problem with the concept of “bug fixes” and upgrades. We know that the more we test something, the clearer we’ll understand what works and what doesn’t, and the better the final product or process will be. But in the realm of public policy, we seem to have trouble embracing innovation. That’s in part because when you’re running for public office and you stand before the voters, you aren’t expected to have a hypothesis; you’re expected to have “the Plan.” The problem is, when you roll out any innovation, new policy, or plan for the first time, there are likely to be glitches, and because you’re in the public eye, those glitches are likely to end up on the front page in bold lettering. When the HealthCare.gov website crashed two hours after it launched in 2013, the problem, though temporary, became a stand-in for describing the entire pursuit of affordable health care coverage as folly. The point is, when you are in public office, there really is a lot of risk associated with pursuing bold actions. Even so, I believe it is our obligation to do so. It is inherent in the oaths we take. The point of being a public official is to find solutions to problems, especially the most intractable, and to have a vision for the future. I’ve always said that political capital doesn’t gain interest. You have to spend it, and be willing to take the hit. You have to be willing to test your hypothesis and find out if your solution works, based on metrics and data. Blind adherence to tradition should not be the measure of success.
Is it possible? Would it work? If it’s part of “the Plan” you’re running on, you’re compelled to say yes. But the better answer is “Let’s find out.” I signed on to legislation in the Senate to create a model program that will help us do just that. One way or the other, I am confident that the data that comes from such a program will inform our approach.
When you show people the math, you give them the tools to decide whether they agree with the solution. And even if they don’t agree with everything, they may find that they agree with you most of the way—a kind of policy-making “partial credit” that can form the basis for constructive collaboration.