When Sen. Kamala Harris was attorney general of California, she championed a law that made it legal to prosecute parents of truant children. Under the law, which was adopted in 2011 and is still on the books, parents of “chronically truant” students (meaning absent for 10 percent or more school days in a given year) can face a fine of up to $2,000 and or a jail sentence of up to a year.
This law, and Harris’s early-career truancy policies both as district attorney for San Francisco and California AG, have come up quite a lot during the senator’s presidential campaign, for reasons that should be obvious if you read the previous sentence and thought hm, maybe jailing the parent of a chronically truant child isn’t the solution to that child’s truancy. Here is Harris in 2010 acknowledging, with a laugh, that her plan was “a little controversial” in San Francisco, where she was running for re-election.
The issue came up most recently during a taping of Pod Save America, a teaser of which was released today, where host Jon Favreau asked if she would support a similar law as president, noting that parents had been arrested and jailed under the law. (In response, Harris insisted that only happened “in other jurisdictions, not under my watch, ever.”)
Here’s Harris’ full answer:
Harris’s answer, to me, is consistent with her other attempts—like in the cases of Kevin Cooper and bail increases, for example—to soften the blow of her past as a member of law enforcement by emphasizing her progressive bona fides.
Look at her response to Favreau. Harris first insists that parents actually serving jail time for their truant children only happened “in other jurisdictions,” something she had “no control over.” (She had just been elected attorney general when the law went into effect.) But then she quickly says she would not support a similar law as president because it had “unintended consequences” (read: people went to jail.)
Then Harris pivots to justifying the original law, explaining the systematic problem with “chronic” truancy in California’s schools and the link between low high school graduation rates, crime, poverty, and death. These are real, systematic issues sorely in need of multi-faceted solutions, and I fully believe Harris wanted to address them. The problem, however, is that all of her proposed solutions involved using the tools she knew best—the police, the courts, and the prisons, tools of the state that she and everyone observing know disproportionately affect people of color, the poor, and families already living on the edge. It’s hard to stay in high school, for example, if you’re trying to work full-time to support your family.
You can see the intentions behind Harris’ law. The penal code penalties—the part of the law that actually criminalized parents allowing truancy—are only supposed to kick in after the parent and child have been “offered language accessible support services to address the pupil’s truancy,” and can be deferred, and the charges dropped, if the situation is resolved through a list of other court-ordered services or programs, including mental and physical health services and parenting classes.
Let’s go back to that speech at the Commonwealth Club Harris made in January 2010, when she was still district attorney:
The philosophy behind it is simple, and Harris sums it up in the speech.
“As a prosecutor and law enforcement I have a huge stick,” she said. “The school district has got a carrot. Let’s work in tandem around our collective objective and goal which is to get these kids in school.”
The well-reported story Harris then told about arresting and charging a homeless woman whose children were truant and using the criminal justice system to “help” them before dropping the charges is how law enforcement officers, like Harris, think the law is supposed to work.
“My regret is that I have now heard stories where in some jurisdictions, DAs have criminalized the parents,” she told Favreau. “And I regret that that has happened and the thought that anything I did could have led to that, because that certainly was not the intention.”
Harris was a prosecutor, which means she was a cop. Regardless of “jurisdiction,” she had to know that at some point the law would work to the letter, and the charges wouldn’t get dropped. Calling that “unintended consequences” is either uncharacteristic idealism, stupidity, or a lie. The teaser ends there; it’s unclear if Favreau asks the obvious follow-up, which is what Harris would do differently understanding what she does now.
She might not support that same solution again, but it’s still not clear to me that when presented with myriad tough choices as president, she wouldn’t fall back on reaching for the stick.