Kamala Harris, who has made her prosecutorial record a centerpiece of her presidential bid, said she now has misgivings about a California law she championed that punished parents of habitually truant schoolchildren.
Speaking on the liberal podcast “Pod Save America,” Sen. Harris said the arrests and, in some cases, jail sentences of parents in multiple California counties were an “unintended consequence” of the statewide law, which built on her tough-on-truancy approach as San Francisco district attorney.
The interview, released on Wednesday, marks the first sign of remorse from Harris about the anti-truancy effort, a signature cause throughout her career that she had steadfastly defended on the campaign trail. Her contrition reflects the difficult politics of running in a Democratic presidential primary as a career prosecutor at a time of widespread discontent within the party about racial disparities in law enforcement.
“I just think the whole concept of ‘progressive prosecutor’ is going to strike a lot of people as an oxymoron,” said Garry South, a veteran Democratic strategist who is unaligned in the presidential race.
Harris has cast herself as a pioneer of reformist criminal justice, promoting social programs that aimed to keep first-time offenders from falling into a life of crime. But her background as a prosecutor has provided fodder for skeptics, particularly on the left.
When Harris was a district attorney, it was more common to approach social problems with the threat of incarceration, but voters now “are far more attuned to criminal justice as an issue of civil rights,” said Hadar Aviram, a law professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.
Harris’ crusade on truancy has been particularly fraught.
As San Francisco district attorney from 2004 to 2011, Harris issued citations to parents whose children missed more than 50 days of school, but none of them were put in jail. She called truancy a public safety issue, saying high school dropouts had a higher chance of winding up as victims or perpetrators of crimes. Each year, she sent a letter to every San Francisco parent of public school students, warning them of potential prosecution for truancy.
During her 2010 campaign for state attorney general, Harris explained her focus on chronic school absences.
“I believe that a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime,” Harris said in a speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. “So I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy. Well, this was a little controversial in San Francisco.
“And frankly my staff went bananas,” she recounted with a laugh. “They were very concerned, because we didn’t know at the time whether I was going to have an opponent in my reelection race.”
“I have a huge stick” as a prosecutor to get kids in school, Harris said. “The school district has a carrot — let’s work in tandem.”
Harris took that advocacy statewide, sponsoring a 2010 law to make it a misdemeanor for parents whose young children miss more than 10% of school days a year without a valid excuse. Parents could be punished with a maximum $2,000 fine, up to a year in county jail or both. Violators of the law could defer judgment by participating in regular meetings with school officials and improving their children’s attendance.
“With children missing significant amounts of time from kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and no one paying attention or doing anything about it, we were seeing 8-year-old kids having their futures carved into stone — which was just tragic,” said Mark Leno, who wrote the bill when he was a Democratic state senator from San Francisco.
Former Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, another San Francisco Democrat and a former public school teacher, voted against the bill because he believed it wouldn’t address the problem.
“It was a stinker of a law,” Ammiano said.
Harris and her allies have said the law’s purpose was to prod school districts to provide resources to families of truant children, not to lock up parents. But the Huffington Post reported that several counties in California arrested, charged and sometimes jailed parents under the law backed by Harris.
In the “Pod Save America” interview, Harris distanced herself from that approach.
“My regret is that I have now heard stories where, in some jurisdictions, DAs have criminalized the parents. And I regret that that has happened,” she 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. Never was the intention.”
Leno echoed that sentiment, saying the law explicitly stated that “before law enforcement can use this new misdemeanor, every available attention must be brought to the student and the student families. Everyone must join hands to find a way to get this child to class.”
Robert Dempsie, an assistant district attorney in Tulare County, said he recalled Harris twice presenting the truancy law at meetings of the state district attorney’s association. She recommended imprisonment for truancy only in the most extreme cases, he said.
Dempsie said he could recall three parents charged under the law in his county; all the cases were settled without jail time. Still, he said, prosecutors could pursue jail time in circumstances “when the school district is doing what it can to assist the parents but the parents are doing nothing in return.”
Ammiano, who is supporting Harris’ rival Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, said he saw progress in her show of remorse. But he disagreed that harsh punishments for parents were an unforeseen outcome of the law.
“That is a cop-out,” he said. “You can’t say, ‘I didn’t really mean for this to happen.’ Then what did you mean?”
Aviram of UC Hastings noted the law’s good intention of keeping kids in school, but said the jailing of parents should come as no surprise.
“This was approached as a criminal justice problem, so it’s not such a shocker that it has criminal justice consequences,” she said. “There are all kinds of ways to do this without threatening punishment.”