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Why Kamala Harris is under attack for a decade-old anti-truancy program

Harris’s anti-truancy program has become a flashpoint for her record on criminal justice.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to supporters in Oakland, California, during her presidential campaign launch rally.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to supporters in Oakland, California, during her presidential campaign launch rally.
Mason Trinca/Getty Images

A decade-old anti-truancy program that threatened parents with prosecution if their kids missed school is coming back to haunt Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign.

The program — which started around 2008, while Harris was San Francisco’s district attorney — was created as a last resort to push the parents of chronically truant kids to get them to school.

Now that Harris is running for president, the program has drawn criticism from some on the left, who argue it could create another pipeline to the criminal justice system by making jail a punishment for a low-level, nonviolent misstep. A 2010 video in which Harris laughs as she calls the idea “controversial” and boasts about scaring a mom with the prospect of going to jail has added fuel to the fire.

Harris’s supporters argue that the threat of prosecution was used only in extreme truancy cases, involving weeks or months of missed class, and only after the parents had been offered help with health care and transportation by the school district and other social service agencies. They point to statistics showing that school attendance rates rose in San Francisco after the program went into place, though it’s unclear if the program itself is to credit for the change.

For criminal justice reformers, though, the central question isn’t just whether the program worked; it’s whether prosecutors should be involved in truancy at all. Progressives increasingly believe that the criminal justice system is involved in far too many aspects of American life. Getting courts and prosecutors involved in making sure kids attend schools is, to them, another example of that overreach.

The dust-up is about more than a program that, according to city officials, has never actually jailed a parent in San Francisco (although it has in other parts of the state that imitated Harris’s policy). It’s the latest example of the growing concerns among progressives, particularly those who support criminal justice reform, that Harris represents an outdated era of “tough on crime” policy — given her record as San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general, when she at times resisted some reform efforts even as she embraced others.

Harris has characterized herself as a “progressive prosecutor,” and saw part of her job as “to recognize that not everyone needs punishment; that what many need, quite plainly, is help.” The anti-truancy program, as implemented in San Francisco, could fall into that framing: It wasn’t meant to lead to jail time, and it helped vulnerable kids who weren’t going to school.

In the end, Harris’s supporters say, the policy might help shrink the criminal justice system. “A critical way to keep kids out of the criminal justice system when they’re older or prevent them from becoming victims of crime is to keep them in school when they’re young,” Lily Adams, Harris’s spokesperson, told me.

Because Harris spent decades in the criminal justice system — as a prosecutor, local district attorney, and a state attorney general — these sorts of conflicts are bound to keep coming up. The dispute over the truancy policy, which was later expanded statewide with Harris’s support, illustrates a broader issue for her: Policies that may have seemed acceptable or even laudable a decade ago face more questions today as criminal justice reform has taken off, especially among Democrats, particularly in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

How Kamala Harris’s anti-truancy program works

As San Francisco’s district attorney, Harris spoke of truancy in strong terms, writing that “a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime.” Her office pointed to statistics showing that more than one in four students in San Francisco public schools were truant. Harris also noted that there was a connection between kids missing school and being involved with crime as either a perpetrator or victim: “In San Francisco, over 94 percent of all homicide victims under the age of 25 are high school dropouts. Statewide, two-thirds of prison inmates are high school dropouts.”

With these statistics in hand, Harris moved to do something about truancy with a new initiative, which remains in place in San Francisco today. The goal was not to threaten all truant kids’ parents with prosecution; Katy Miller, who helped implement the program as a prosecutor under Harris, said that it’s meant to use a step-by-step process of escalating intervention and consequences to push parents to get their kids to school.

And the cases that get to prosecution are extreme — typically parents whose kids have missed more than 30, 60, or 80 days out of a 180-day school year. Miller had one case in court in which a child missed 178 days.

When a student is regularly truant, the school district first gets involved by sending out letters to parents telling them that their child is missing class. Then, the school can call parents into a meeting with school staff and sometimes support service providers to figure out what’s going on. The next step is a meeting with the school attendance review board — where various government agencies and social services, as well as school staff, can be present — to figure out what might be contributing to the truancy. That meeting typically concludes with a contract that dictates who’s going to do what to make sure a kid can get to school.

If all of that fails, the school can refer the case to the prosecutor’s office, which can threaten prosecution if there’s no progress on attendance. The thinking, Miller said, is that by then a parent has already been offered help but clearly needs an extra push to take it and improve a child’s attendance. And if a parent agrees to take steps to improve a child’s attendance, the charges are dropped.

Before the program, the prosecutor’s office was, for the most part, not involved in truancy cases. But the purpose wasn’t to criminalize having a truant kid, said Miller, who’s now chief of alternative programs and initiatives at the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

“The way this model has always very intentionally been designed in every aspect of it has been to not get to conviction and incarceration,” she told me. “It has been to use a problem-solving court model to get people to access the services that they need to overcome whatever barriers they have in their life that are keeping them from getting their young child to school.”

“It’s not going to be perfect,” Miller added. “We know it’s not going to be perfect, but we want to see an improved trajectory.”

The prosecutor’s office typically allows the school district’s process to play out before it gets directly involved. Miller said that, when she was still a prosecutor under the program, she rejected some referrals from the school district because the district hadn’t first taken enough action on its own.

At most, 20 parents have been prosecuted in a typical year, Miller said, and none have been jailed. The charge used by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office doesn’t even carry the potential for jail time; instead, it’s a lower-level infraction that can at worst result in a fine. (The fine is typically $100 per child in San Francisco, but fines can go up to thousands of dollars under state law.)

Still, even if no one is jailed, the threat of jail time remains. In a 2009 op-ed in SFGate, Harris highlighted that state law allows up to a year in jail time for truancy. In 2010, she boasted that a mom warned her kids, after seeing a letter from the prosecutor’s office, that “if you don’t go to school, Kamala’s going to put you and me in jail.” And she championed efforts to write the jail punishment into the state’s new anti-truancy law, which took effect in 2011.

The policy may have worked. In the 2007-2008 school year, 4 percent of students, or more than 2,200, were considered chronically truant. In 2010-2011, that had fallen to 2.5 percent, according to San Francisco Unified School District data. Habitual truancy rates and overall truancy rates also fell.

But it’s not clear if Harris’s anti-truancy program is to credit for the drop; the school district also carried out various other efforts at the time to improve attendance rates.

For her part, Miller attributed the improvement not just to the threats of prosecution but also other policies that were implemented simultaneously — including the school initiatives, a hotline to call in truant kids, and a public education campaign that informed parents it’s against the law for kids to not show up to school. “All of those things combined contributed to that change,” Miller said.

Progressives want to limit the criminal justice system as much as possible

For some criminal justice reformers, it’s almost irrelevant whether the program reduced truancy. They argue that it never should have been considered at all.

James Forman Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Locking Up Our Own, summarized the criticisms of Harris — and the program — in a few tweets:

From an ideological perspective, there has been a growing push in recent years to get the criminal justice system out of many aspects of American life.

“You’re essentially threatening people with prison when there’s underlying poverty issues that are potentially preventing them from having their kids show up to school on time,” Jyoti Nanda, who runs runs a youth and justice clinic at UCLA, told me. “It’s using a crime lens to address what’s really a public health issue.”

With Harris’s anti-truancy program, there’s a threat that a parent will be fined or jailed. That could hurt the family financially, or take a parent out of a child’s home. That could also lead to a criminal record, which could hurt the parents further in, say, finding a job. These kinds of collateral consequences could actually hurt the kids the program intends to help if it inhibits parents’ ability to support their children and get them to school.

As one example: How is a mom going to drive her sons to school if she’s in jail, or if she can’t afford transportation because she’s facing hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines?

For Nanda, the issue also goes deeper: “Even just the fear you instill in parents, the shame that you instill in them … impacts children and families.”

The concerns are especially heightened because the criminal justice system tends to hurt minority and low-income communities the most. Harris herself has acknowledged this, but framed her program as helping minority, low-income communities since it’s more likely to reach them.

“It fed into that rhetoric — the criminalization of poverty,” Nanda argued, cautioning that she didn’t believe this was Harris’s intent. “It further reinforces those stereotypes that poor parents and parents of color just don’t want their children to go to school, that they’re not motivated enough to have their children go to school.”

Harris’s supporters say the goal is to lessen criminal justice involvement. Truancy and dropping out of school are well-established contributors to crime; missing school not only gives kids more time to get in trouble, but a lack of education makes it harder to get a legitimate job. If truancy can be cut early on, it can prevent someone from falling into the criminal justice system by ensuring none of these negative outcomes play out.

Harris herself made this argument in a memoir published in January, The Truths We Hold: “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.”

As Harris pushed to implement her anti-truancy policy statewide as state attorney general, though, more conservative parts of the state weren’t as careful about balancing these risks. In Hanford, California, one mom was sentenced to 180 days in jail in 2012 for not sending her kids to school.

“In San Francisco, the politics are such that they have the political will to not include jail time,” Nanda said. “But there is no other city or county in the entire state that is like San Francisco.”

Nanda pointed to another problem: Even if the program does get kids back into school, it doesn’t necessarily address the root problems that may have pushed kids to disengage to begin with. In her work, she sees kids failed by poor access to special education programs or mental health and trauma services. “That’s largely been unaddressed,” Nanda argued.

Kamala Harris’s criminal justice record is under a lot of scrutiny

This entire line of criticism falls under the broader scrutiny of Harris’s record on criminal justice issues, from her time as San Francisco district attorney between 2004 and 2011 to her time as attorney general between 2011 and 2017.

Harris does have a truly mixed record here. She pushed for programs that helped people find jobs instead of putting them in prison, but also fought to keep people in prison even after they were proved innocent. She refused to pursue the death penalty against a man who killed a police officer, but also defended California’s death penalty system in court. She implemented training programs to address police officers’ racial biases, but also resisted calls to get her office to investigate certain police shootings.

But what seem like contradictions may reflect a balancing act: She started in an era when “tough on crime” politics were popular across party lines, but rose to national prominence as criminal justice reform started to take off nationally.

Harris and her supporters have framed her past as working within a broken criminal justice system to change it for the better. Harris told the New York Times Magazine in 2016 that she saw becoming a prosecutor as moving to “the table where the decisions are made.” And Adams, Harris’s spokesperson, told me, “Kamala Harris has spent her career fighting for reforms in the criminal justice system and pushing the envelope to keep everyone safer by bringing fairness and accountability.”

Harris’s race and gender likely made the balancing act even tougher. In the US, studies have found that more than 90 percent of elected prosecutors are white and more than 80 percent are male. As a black woman, Harris stood out — inviting scrutiny and skepticism, especially by people who may hold racist stereotypes about how black people view law enforcement or sexist views about whether women are “tough” enough for the job.

Perhaps some of this also reflected the tools that Harris had available to her. Nanda said that Harris conveyed a “sophisticated view” of the connection between truancy and crime, which acknowledges that crime has “root causes.” This is an issue that Harris has spoken at length and passionately about. But as a prosecutor and attorney general, the tools available to her were through the criminal justice system, and she ended up using the tools that she had to try to solve a problem she cared about and saw in her day-to-day work.

But simply using those tools, no matter her intent, in some ways makes her record incompatible with some progressive views about the criminal justice system and limiting its reach in American life. In this way, what Harris may have seen as a progressive move that acknowledged a sophisticated view of truancy now looks out of touch and even regressive to her critics.

As Briahna Gray wrote for the Intercept, “To become a prosecutor is to make a choice to align oneself with a powerful and fundamentally biased system.”

Yet some seem to have forgiven Harris, largely due to her more consistent support for criminal justice reform in the Senate. Shaun King, a prominent racial justice advocate, told BuzzFeed that he’s come around to Harris, despite her past record. “I was a little slow to trust her as a reformer on criminal justice, but I think she’s proven herself to me,” he said. “I think she’s become one of the better spokespersons for really serious criminal justice reform in the Democratic Party.” (Although King has remained critical of Harris at times.)

So when Harris’s anti-truancy program comes up, the debate is not just about whether the program was effective. It’s also about whether the entire basis for this approach — one that involves the criminal justice system in yet another area of day-to-day life — is one that is ultimately compatible with the modern progressive movement and Democratic Party, or if it reflects a broader “tough on crime” record that disqualifies Harris and her presidential run.

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