Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) has long espoused a philosophy of using the threat of prosecution as a means of solving social ills.
One glaring example of this is from a January 2010 speech Harris gave to the Commonwealth Club of California, entitled “Smart on Crime – Elevating the Discussion in Our City, State, and Nation.” In the speech, Kamala Harris — who was then serving as San Francisco’s District Attorney — boasted about how she reduced truancy rates by intimidating parents with the threat of prosecution.
“Invariably, the parents would say, ‘well, who’s that mean-looking dude?’ And the principal would say, ‘well, that’s someone that mean DA Kamala Harris sent over here, cause she said she’s gonna start prosecuting you if we can’t work this out,” Harris recalled. “Through that initiative, we found cases like the case of the woman who was by herself, raising her three children, holding down two jobs, and homeless.”
“She just needed some help,” Harris continued. “But by shining this infrared spotlight of public safety on the fact that her children aren’t in school, we were able to figure that out, get her access to services that exist, and through that process, the attendance of her children improved, we dismissed the charges against her, and overall we’ve improved attendance for this population in San Francisco by 20 percent over the last two years.”
Independent journalist Walker Bragman tweeted the clip of Harris’ speech, along with a factoid about how truancy disproportionately impacts marginalized communities like people of color, homeless youth, and disabled students, and that Kamala Harris’ philosophy shames those populations.
Kamala Harris continued on to describe how she'd brought charges against a single homeless mother of 3 who was working 2 jobs because her children were truant…and this was a success story. pic.twitter.com/FT5uJmI6x9
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) January 28, 2019
In the Houston, Texas suburb of Fort Bend, for example, half of the students in the Fort Bend School District’s truancy court in the 2013-2014 academic year were black, even though black students made up just one-third of the district’s population according to the Houston Chronicle. And in Harris’ home state of California, the average truancy rate in high-poverty schools was 1.5 times higher between the 2007-2008 academic year and the 2009-2010 academic year than in low-poverty schools, according to a 2015 study by the Center for Poverty Research at UC-Davis.
Ironically, that same UC-Davis study used figures from Kamala Harris’ office when she was California’s Attorney General finding that truancy was most often linked to socioeconomic status, rather than a lack of motivation:
There are many reasons why students miss or skip school. These include mental and physical health issues, a lack of transportation, problems in the home such as unstable housing and unemployment, fear of bullying and other school and community safety issues.
Students from low-income families disproportionately suffer from these barriers to attendance. According to a 2014 report from the California Attorney General’s office, almost 90 percent of elementary school students with the most severe attendance problems come from low-income households. In fact, a student’s socioeconomic status (SES) may be one of the strongest predictors of attendance.
To be fair, Harris’ use of prosecution to lower truancy did lower truancy rates. And it could be argued that Harris’ anecdote about prosecuting the single mother who just needed help resulted in her kids attending school more often. But the fact that Harris could have instead helped the homeless single mother of three get access to services to help her rather than intimidate her with criminal charges was not lost on Twitter users reacting to the video of her speech.
Getting the services first would be a big improvement.
— GLB (@genofthesea) January 28, 2019
As a parent who has received one of these letters, I can tell you all they do is create fear. They go out automatically, even when I have called the school to explain family circumstances for excused absences. They cause harm to families that are already under duress.
— Alison Collins 高勵思 (@AliMCollins) January 28, 2019
i represent kids charged with crimes in court. Lots of them have really unstable housing situations and all sorts of challenges, and wind up missing school. Jailing their parents, often their one source of support and stability, is about the worst idea I've ever heard.
— Diane McNamara (@Diane__McNamara) January 28, 2019
While Kamala Harris delivered that particular speech nearly a decade ago, she defended her record in her recently released memoir, “The Truths We Hold.”
“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’ spokeswoman, Lily Adams, told CBS.
Harris is due to speak at a CNN town hall Monday night at 10 PM Eastern.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.