America needs a fix to our criminal justice system, not a glaring reminder of who broke it.

SAN DIEGO — When campaigning for president, choosing a running mate tells Americans about your priorities, judgment and decision-making.

It also tells us whether you’ve been paying attention. We need to know whether you’re in tune with what the country is going through or whether you’re locked away — or quarantined — within your own bubble.

President Donald Trump is at a disadvantage. This is not the time for his divisive brand of politics, which pits “us” vs. “them” and drives wedges between groups. This is not the moment to engage in racial politicking, look for scapegoats and stoke fears. Such tactics worked four years ago, and Trump won by encouraging half the country to dislike the other half.

But a lot has changed in this country in just the past four months. Given the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department in May, and the pain and destruction it caused, I’ll bet that a lot of Americans have lost their taste for the red meat of racial division.

All this would normally be good news for Joe Biden. That is, if the likely Democratic nominee doesn’t botch his pick for vice president.

Biden’s 1990s crime record

If the attack line against Trump is going to be that he is out of step with the moment, then it would be foolish for Democrats to put a presidential ticket that hearkens back to an earlier time.

Like the 1990s, when — amid skyrocketing crime rates — politicians in both parties competed to see who could be the toughest on crime. Having lost three presidential elections in the 1980s, Democrats were determined to not be pushed around anymore. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas bragged that he supported the death penalty; he even took a break the campaign trail, at one point, to return to Little Rock to oversee an execution.

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California at the Democratic debate in 2019 in Houston.

Among Democrats, there was, in that decade, not one tougher hombre than Biden. In 1992, during a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Biden, D-Del., bragged that a crime bill he had written was so heavy-handed, it did “everything but hang people for jaywalking.” He also helped write the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 and would thereafter defend what he called the “Biden bill.” Signed by President Clinton, the law led to longer prison sentences, more prison cells, harsher policing and higher incarceration rates for African.

The Judge Roy Bean version of Joe Biden doesn’t sit well in an era when elected officials are talking about police reform and social justice. Finally, there has been a realization in many quarters that the criminal justice system is not serving African Americans as much as it is serving them up to a vindictive and blood-thirsty citizenry. It’s about time that light bulb went off.

But as any viewer of NBC’s “Law and Order” knows, the police are only half the equation. It’s the prosecutors who have the power to take away people’s freedom by putting them in prison, if they meet the burden of proof.

This was always going to be an imperfect system. Emotion, biases, vengeance, prejudice can all get in the way of achieving what prosecutors are supposed to be seeking: justice.

For the past 30 years, I’ve seen those imperfections up close while covering the criminal justice system and writing about its abuses in three major U.S. cities: Phoenix, Dallas and San Diego.

Here is what I’ve learned: District Attorneys should be appointed by the local Board of Supervisors and not elected by the people. State attorneys general should be appointed by independent commissions.

Because when prosecutors have to stand before the public for election, they morph into a strange beast: half lawyer, half politician. This is a dangerous combination. If there is one thing incompatible with justice, it’s ambition — the ambition that courses through the veins of most politicians, who are usually too busy trying to be popular to properly do the job at hand.

It is ambition that has guided Kamala Harris from her days as San Francisco district attorney to California attorney general to U.S. senator to 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

And it is ambition that has led Harris to where she is now — one of the apparent front-runners to be Biden’s running mate.

Harris’ bad prosecution record

Biden-Harris. This is a match made in, well, about as far from heaven as you can get. More like at a public execution.

Remember that racist 1994 crime bill that Biden championed and defended for so many years? The same crime bill that fueled the mass incarceration that decimated the African American community in the United States? Well, it was that bill that gave Harris the bricks to build her own political career on the West Coast.

According to many legal experts, Harris was not the fabled “progressive prosecutor” she pretends to be. While she was San Francisco’s district attorney, lawyers who worked for her were routinely accused of prosecutorial misconduct and cutting corners to rack up convictions even if some innocent people went to jail. About this, she did nothing.

She seems to have decided early on that, as a Black woman, the only way to climb the ladder politically in the Golden State was to reassure white liberal donors that she could protect them and their belongings from people who looked like her. It worked. She rose all right — on the backs of the less connected: the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.

Biden-Harris 2020? That’s not the ticket. As anyone who has been paying attention already knows, the theme of this rotten year is racial justice. America needs a fix to our criminal justice system, not another glaring reminder of just how broken it really is.


This piece expresses the view of the author (s), separate from those of this publication.

Ruben Navarrette Jr., a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors, is a syndicated columnist and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Follow him on Twitter: @RubenNavarrette