In a 2010 speech, Kamala Harris laughed as she described the backlash to her decision to start prosecuting the parents of children who were truant from school.
Now, just days after the California senator officially launched her 2020 presidential campaign, clips from that speech have gone viral on Twitter, sparking criticism of Harris’ punitive approach to truancy.
As San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris had prosecuted at least 25 truancy cases as of late 2010. No parents were arrested, and none were jailed, according to a prosecutor who still works on the issue in the current district attorney’s office. Instead, the parents were issued citations to come to court, where they could avoid a fine by completing a plan to improve their child’s attendance.
But in public speeches and op-eds, Harris leaned heavily on the threat of potential jail time for parents whose elementary school children were often absent from school. During her race for attorney general of California, she championed a new statewide anti-truancy law that specified that parents of chronically truant students could face a maximum penalty of a year’s imprisonment in county jail, a fine of up to $2,000, or both.
Critics responding to the clips of Harris’ speech this week said they disapproved of Harris’ willingness to use what she called the “huge stick” of law enforcement as a threat to make sure struggling parents got the help they needed.
In her 2010 speech, Harris noted that one of the parents prosecuted for truancy was a single mother of three, who was homeless and working two jobs. By shining the “spotlight of public safety” on her case, officials were able to get the woman services, Harris argued. Once her children’s attendance improved, “we dismissed the charges against her”.
Harris’ anecdote about the homeless mother captures “the disaster of American social policy”, James Forman Jr, a scholar and critic of mass incarceration, wrote on Twitter in response to the clip. “That’s the American way: what little help we offer poor people comes under threat of prison.”
The people prosecuted for the “crime” of having their children miss school are overwhelmingly poor, black and brown, Forman, the author of Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment Black America, wrote. “Poor parents don’t need the threat of jail to get their kids to school. They need what the wealthy take for granted: good schools, lead-free water, safe parks, healthy food, well-stocked libraries, etc.”
One widely-shared tweet compared Harris’ remarks on truancy to Hillary Clinton’s racist 1996 comment about juvenile “super-predators”.
Advocates have long argued that Harris’ truancy policy gets the issue backwards: student truancy is not a problem of bad or neglectful parents, but a symptom of broader problems within the school systems, including chronic underfunding of California public schools. A punitive approach to truancy, used against both parents and students themselves, threatens to fuel the school to prison pipeline and make life harder for students missing school.
Since she announced her campaign for president, Harris, a prosecutor who has spend her entire career in public service, has emerged as a strong contender for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Her Oakland campaign launch rally last weekend drew an estimated 20,000 people – more than Barack Obama attracted when he launched his presidential campaign in 2007.
Harris is campaigning as a crusader “for the people”, a criminal justice reformer and a politician willing to “speak truth” about racism in America. But her record on truancy, as well as her record on police killings, prisons and sex work, is emerging as an early flash point for some progressive voters.
The clips from Harris’ 2010 speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, as well as other clips from her criminal justice speeches, were shared on Monday by Walker Bragman, a freelance journalist who has previously written about his support for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who may compete with Harris for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
According to a prosecutor who still works on the issue in the current district attorney’s office, San Francisco prosecutors usually issue parents of truant students a citation, equivalent to a traffic ticket, which carries no penalty of jail time.