FACT CHECK: Kamala Harris Says She Never Jailed Anybody For Truancy
During a Feb. 11 appearance on the radio show “The Breakfast Club,” Sen. Kamala Harris denied that she ever jailed anybody under an anti-truancy program she initiated as district attorney of San Francisco.
“We never locked anybody up,” the California Democrat said.
No parents were incarcerated for child truancy in San Francisco during Harris’ tenure as district attorney. She did, however, strongly support the passage of a statewide truancy law that prosecutors in California have used to charge parents. At least one mother has been sent to prison under the law.
In January, Harris announced that she would run for president, prompting a renewed interest in her record of public service. Harris was elected district attorney of San Francisco in 2003, a position she held until 2011, when she became attorney general of California.
Recently, a 2010 video of Harris resurfaced, where she discussed her decision as district attorney of San Francisco to prosecute the parents of children who were chronically absent from the classroom. “I believe a child going without an education is tantamount to a crime, so I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy,” Harris said in the video.
The video drew media attention to her approach on the issue. In another clip from the same event, Harris described how her office brought charges against a homeless mother for her children’s truancy. The charges were later dropped after their attendance improved, Harris said.
In 2007, Harris began using prosecution and the threat of prosecution as a tool to combat extreme cases of truancy.
But no parent has ever been sentenced to prison in San Francisco for child truancy, Katy Miller, chief of programs and initiatives in the San Francisco district attorney’s office and former assistant district attorney under Harris, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email. In late 2010, Harris said that 25 cases had been prosecuted.
Miller has said this is how the initiative was intended to be used: prosecution as a last resort only after numerous other attempts to solve the problem had been exhausted.
“The way this model has always very intentionally been designed in every aspect of it has been to not get to conviction and incarceration,” Miller told Vox. “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.”
Parents in California could be forced to pay a fine or even be sent to jail for truant children, but the San Francisco district attorney’s office does not charge parents with an offense that carries jail time.
Harris zeroed in on truancy, particularly in elementary schools, as an issue after drawing a connection to crime in the city. “To be smart on crime and invest wisely in California’s economic future, we must eliminate elementary school truancy,” Harris said in a 2016 press release.
“Chronically absent children are far more likely to drop out of school and enter into the criminal justice system,” she continued. “This is a solvable problem: with better data, monitoring, and communication with parents, we can continue to make significant strides toward ensuring students are in school and on track to meet their full potential.”
Harris often cites a 2009 study that found that 94 percent of San Francisco’s homicide victims aged 14 to 25 in 2008 were high school dropouts.
In 2010, with Harris’ support, California passed an anti-truancy law modeled after the San Francisco initiative that made it a misdemeanor offense for parents to have chronically truant children. If found guilty, parents could be fined as much as $2,000 or face up to a year in jail.
At least one parent, a mother from Kings County, California, has been incarcerated under the state law. The decision to pursue jail time against the parent of a truant child is left to the discretion of the county district attorney’s office, and most choose against seeking this outcome, one California prosecutor told TheDCNF.
Still, some criminal justice reform advocates have criticized Harris’ approach to the issue, arguing that truancy should not be treated as a criminal matter.
“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, a University of California- Los Angeles teaching fellow who studies civil rights and social justice issues, told Vox. “It’s using a crime lens to address what’s really a public health issue.”
Harris and others have defended the approach, arguing that it helped lower truancy rates in San Francisco. However, it’s unclear if her initiative led to the decrease, as the school district implemented other programs at the time to combat truancy.
Harris’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
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