Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s former role as California attorney general has been in the spotlight as she has entered the 2020 presidential race. Her prosecutorial record is drawing criticism from some as overly harsh.
One of the policies she has been criticized for is a truancy program she implemented.
While district attorney of San Francisco, Harris tried to combat waning school attendance by criminalizing truancy. She was then able to use the threat of fines or jail time for parents of children who missed too many school days. Harris never sent a parent to jail while overseeing this initiative as San Francisco’s chief prosecutor.
But when she became attorney general of California in 2011, she implemented the policy statewide. Prosecutors across the state took parents to court, and some were jailed.
On Wednesday, Harris expressed “regret” for the program and said she would not support expanding nationally if she becomes president, marking the first time she had been asked about implementing the policy nationwide.
Harris lamented what she called “unintended consequences” of the policy — in other words, that the policy was never intended to criminalize parents, just motivate them to ensure their children attended school — and distanced herself from the detentions that resulted from it.
“I regret that has happened,” Harris said, “and the thought that anything that I did could have led to that — because that certainly was not the intention. Never was the intention.”
“[No one went to jail] on my watch ever,” Harris said. “I had no control over that.”
The truancy policy has come under scrutiny in multiple national publications since Harris declared her candidacy for president in late January. It also lingers in the minds of voters, who have questioned her about it.
Multiple voters interviewed at her events have cited the truancy policy as a concern, but not a disqualifying one.
When asked, Harris defends the policy by citing her rationale: She commissioned a study of homicide victims under 25 and found 90 percent of them were high school dropouts. She determined that habitually truant elementary school students were more likely to drop out of high school, so she designed a policy to get kids back to school.
“I put a spotlight on it. As a result of doing that, we ended up increasing attendance by over 30 percent,” Harris said on the podcast. She said that identifying families of habitually truant students allowed social services to “kick in” and support families who needed it.
“My concern was, if we don’t take seriously the need that our society should have to make sure our children are receiving the benefit of an education, we will pay the price later and those kids will pay the price, which is that they’ll end up in the criminal justice system,” she said.
As attorney general, Harris issued a 2013 report on truancy that suggested parents be “imprisoned for truancy violations in only the most extreme cases — it is both traumatic for children and families and costly for taxpayers.”
Criminal justice reform is a staple of Harris’s stump speeches and platform. She casts herself as a truth-teller willing to talk about the problems of implicit racial bias in the criminal justice system, and as someone with the means to root it out. She talks about rejecting the choice between “soft on crime” and “tough on crime,” casting herself as “smart on crime,” and supporting the point with policies from her state and local prosecutorial tenures. She says she considers herself “a progressive prosecutor.”
Some of her California policies — like the Back on Track initiative that helped nonviolent, first-time offenders receive high school diplomas and other career training — were emulated elsewhere and have been touted during her presidential campaign.