Letitia Harmon worked as an international human rights consultant with Strategic Applications International in Washington D.C. searching for solutions to human trafficking, working to change Kuwait's penal code for a Kuwaiti women’s organization, and fighting gender-based violence in Kenya.
She worked with the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and helped author the report presented to President Obama and the Department of Justice that still serves as a model for local law enforcement practices nationwide.
And after a career that has taken her from Oxford University, to Nepal, to Kenya, and back home to Kansas City, Harmon has now set her sights on criminal justice, immigrant rights and voting rights reforms in the Kansas Legislature as the ACLU of Kansas’ new Policy Director.
“I have lived all over the US and in four other countries, and while every culture and place is distinct, all people want to live free of fear and political oppression,” said Harmon, who joined the ACLU of Kansas in 2018. “Human rights are human rights, no matter where you are in the world.”
One of her areas of focus will be voting rights since Kansas ranks 40th in the nation for percentage of eligible voters that actually register. Specifically, Harmon plans to push for three voting rights reforms that will allow more people to vote:
• Enacting Election Day Registration – Election Day Registration would allow eligible citizens meeting statutory identification requirements to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day, during the early voting period up to Election Day itself;
• Expanding and standardizing early voting across counties – Early voting varies county to county, from zero in one place, to 20 days in another. All counties should have a minimum of one week of early voting, with at least one weekend and times outside normal working hours;
• Repealing Kansas’ voter suppression law – Tens of thousands of eligible voters were prevented from registering because of this policy. It has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge and must be fully repealed.
Harmon also will press for SMART JUSTICE reforms, a national ACLU effort to reimagine our unjust criminal justice system and address the mass incarceration crisis.
“Kansans deserve a criminal justice system that creates safe communities,” she said. “Our broken system has foster high costs and racial disparities. Though only 17 percent of the Kansas population, more than 50 percent of those in prison are people of color.”
Kansas could decrease incarceration in our overpopulated prisons by:
• Standardizing diversion and increasing its use – Non-violent offenders and defendants with mental illness or addiction need treatment rather than prison to avoid recidivism and make contributions to Kansas’ economic and social well-being;
• De-felonizing non-violent drug crimes – Non-violent drug offenses are the number one reason Kansans are sent to prison despite evidence that incarceration does not reduce drug abuse, or drug crimes. Kansas should reduce the penalty from felony to misdemeanor, and offer diversion and treatment for addiction when appropriate;
• Requiring conviction before seizing private property by law – Civil asset forfeiture is a common practice to seize private poverty if police suspect a citizen has committed a crime. Even if a case goes to trial and the citizen is found not guilty, they may never receive their property.
Harmon also plans to fight for the rights of immigrants, women and LGBTQ Kansans by:
•Opposing bills that repeal in-state tuition;
•Opposing the use of local law enforcement resources for front-line immigration enforcement;
• Opposing any bill infringing on a woman’s constitutional right to make decisions about her own healthcare;
• Advocating for equal access to housing, jobs, and public accommodation for gay and transgender Kansans in the state non-discrimination law;
• Opposing bills that would infringe on 14th Amendment rights and that deny equal access to LGBTQ Kansans;
There’s a lot she hopes to accomplish but she’s already accomplished a great deal academically and professionally. Oxford University accepted her as an associate student in 2000 where she studied English Romantic Literature.
She returned to the U.S. to complete a Bachelor's in International Studies at Seattle Pacific University. She later earned a Master's from the University of Washington in International Relations, specializing in Political Economy and Human Rights.
She interned in Nepal with the Himalayan Society for Youth and Women's Empowerment, working with Tibetan refugees in Kathmandu. In the afternoons, she volunteered at an orphanage that cared for HIV affected/infected children.
The following year, she studied Urdu at the American Institute for Indian Studies on a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship from the State Department. While there, she interned with a microfinance team seeking to economically empower women.
Harmon currently sits on the boards of KC 4 Refugees and remains involved with global NGOs, including Women's Protection Center of Nepal, Amnesty International, and International Justice Mission, SEMA Kenya.
All of this involvement raises interesting questions: Why so many causes? Why spread herself across so many interests?
“I was homeschooled in a deeply Christian environment,” Harmon said. “I was taught not only to question injustice but also to care and to do all that I could to be a voice for the voiceless. My life and work are about protecting human rights and freedom. It’s all I’ve ever done or wanted to do.”