Sen. Kamala Harris Regrets S.F.-Born Truancy Policy

The practice of threatening parents of truant children with prosecution has received intense scrutiny as a 2020 presidential candidate.

Sen. Kamala Harris, months into her 2020 bid for president, said she regrets that her crackdown on parents of truant students resulted in jail time in some jurisdictions.

The California senator and Oakland native said the policy, which first started in 2008 when she was San Francisco District Attorney, had “unintended consequences” during a Pod Save America episode that aired Tuesday evening. The policy, which threatened parents with prosecution to kickstart a plan to end chronic truancy, was criticized as punitive and as adding to criminalization — as are other aspects of her record as a “progressive prosector.”

No parents in San Francisco went to jail but when Harris pushed the practice as Attorney General, she says other parts of the state took it farther than intended. In 2012, one Central Valley mother in the Hanford was sentenced to 180 days in jail for failing to get her children to school.

“My regret is that I have now heard stories where, in some jurisdictions, DAs have criminalized the parents,” Harris told host Jon Favreau. “The thought that anything I did could have led to that…that certainly was not the intention. Never was the intention.”

Harris outlined how she developed the idea after learning that, at the time, more than 94 percent of homicide victims under 25 years old and two-thirds or prison inmates are high school dropouts. The following action was meant to target kids missing more than 30, 60, or even 80 days out of a 180-day school year by setting up an intervention.

Parents notified about the chronic truancy meet with the school attendance review board, set up some plan or contract that may include getting families any support services they may need. No more than 20 parents were prosecuted beyond that point and none were sentenced, Vox reported.  Though other attendance efforts likely contributed, from 2007 to 2011, the rate of chronically truant students in public schools fell from four percent to two-and-a-half percent. 

“We’re failing these kids if we’re not paying attention to the fact that there are kids who are chronically truant and what that will mean for their lives or just our failure as a system to let them achieve their capacity,” Harris said. “They’ll end up in the criminal justice system and that’s what I wanted to avoid.”

Harris felt they made significant progress on that issue in San Francisco. At a 2010 event at the Commonwealth Club, she laughed while recounting how a friend told her children that if they didn’t go to school, they would all go to jail.

But after her record faced scrutiny, Harris struck a different tone. When Favreau asked if she would implement that as president, she gave an immediate, resounding, “No.”

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