Terrell Jermaine Starr, the Root: “Obviously, people have been talking about your time as a prosecutor and attorney general, et cetera. You supported a law that would send parents to jail if their children missed too many days of school. No parents were jailed. But I think the issue people are concerned with this is that that was a consideration in order to deal with the truancy issue.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.): “When I was district attorney, I did an analysis of who the homicide victims were who were under the age of 25, the vast majority of whom were young black men. Because there was always — when there was an increase in murders — talk about putting more cops on the street, more gang enforcement, all that. And I said: ‘Well, wait. Who are these victims? Who are they?’ And the information came back to me: Ninety-four percent of them were high school dropouts. ...
“When I did it, I knew I was going to take a political hit. And the people around me said, ‘Don’t do it, because you are going to pay a price for this in terms of whatever future you want in politics.’ And I said: ‘Look, I’m prepared to play the bad guy on this. I do not intend to put any parent in jail.’ And no parent went to jail. But the school district, society, this community, everyone, including our business community, others, have got to take seriously the education of these children and give the parents the resources that they deserve and need. And that’s what ended up happening. We improved attendance by over 30 percent and not a parent went to jail.”
— Exchange in an interview with the Root, Feb. 26
When she was the San Francisco district attorney, Harris took it upon herself to boost school attendance rates. She did this by threatening to prosecute parents whose kids missed too many school days without good reason.
“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 a 2010 speech.
On the presidential campaign trail these days, Harris strikes a softer tone when she’s asked about her “anti-truancy” initiative. She notes that school attendance rates improved and that no parents were jailed in San Francisco, where she was district attorney from 2004 to 2011.
“As a result of our initiative, which never resulted in any parent going to jail — never — because that was never the goal, we improved attendance by over 30 percent,” Harris told NPR recently.
But that’s only part of the story. After San Francisco, Harris went on to be attorney general of California from 2011 to 2017. She took her anti-truancy initiative statewide. And some parents were jailed as a result (though not in San Francisco).
“Combatting truancy is a smart approach to crime prevention,” Harris wrote in a 2009 op-ed marking the fourth year of San Francisco’s program. She told NPR she approached it “from a perspective of not wanting to prosecute those kids later in their life.”
Harris would send yearly letters to all parents in the San Francisco school district, informing them that truancy was against the law. Prosecutors from her office would hold mediation sessions with parents and truant students. If that failed, Harris’s office would prosecute parents in a specialized truancy court. It was an extreme measure, Harris indicated, and penalties included a fine of up to $2,500 or up to one year in jail.
“To date, I have prosecuted 20 parents of young children for truancy,” Harris wrote in her 2009 op-ed. “Harris’s office claims to have had contact with 1,500 students and families through truancy mediations,” NBC Bay Area reported in 2009.
Despite the tough talk, no parents have been jailed through this program in San Francisco, which is still running. “We definitely have not jailed any parents for truancy in San Francisco,” said Katherine Weinstein Miller, who worked as a prosecutor under Harris and is now chief of alternative programs and initiatives for the San Francisco district attorney’s office. “I can’t speak for other counties, but I can confirm that for my jurisdiction.”
What about the rest of the state?
San Francisco prosecutors have never exercised the option of jailing parents over their children’s poor school attendance, but it has happened in other California counties, according to news reports.
One reason: When she was running for state attorney general, Harris championed a bill to take her anti-truancy program statewide. State lawmakers and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) approved the proposal, and the new law took effect in 2011, just as Harris took office.
The California law’s harshest penalties allow for jailing parents up to one year if their children have unexcused absences for at least 10 percent of school days, along with fines up to $2,000.
“In San Francisco, we threatened the parents of truants with prosecution, and truancy dropped 32 percent,” Harris said in her inauguration speech when she became attorney general in 2011. “So, we are putting parents on notice. If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
Six parents were booked at the Orange County jail in 2013 under California’s truancy law, KPCC reported. In Kings County, a mother was sentenced to 180 days in jail in 2012 after “pleading guilty to allowing her kids to miss more than 10 percent of the school year,” KMPH Fox 26 reported. Another Kings County mother was arrested in 2011 for child truancy issues.
There may be other cases out there, but unfortunately there’s a dearth of data on this question. We asked the California Department of Justice for statistics tracking parents who were jailed under the state’s truancy laws, but were told “local district attorneys or law enforcement agencies would be best-positioned to provide the information you are requesting.” (There are 58 district attorneys in California.)
HuffPost reported Wednesday that Kings County has charged “19 misdemeanors under Harris’ law in the past four years,” while Orange County has “charged a total of 22 parents under Harris’ law.” (We reached out to the Orange County district attorney’s office and did not get a response before deadline.)
As attorney general, Harris issued a report in 2013 on truancy and absenteeism, which mentioned one of the cases involving a jailed mother in Kings County:
"On average, district attorneys reported prosecuting 3-6 [truancy] cases per year. This low number of prosecutions is due to the fact that early intervention strategies like assemblies, SART meetings and SARB hearings, and mediation programs are highly successful.
“There may be extreme cases in which every effort to get a child back to school has been exhausted that are appropriate for prosecution. For example, using Penal Code 270.1, the Kings County District Attorney’s office prosecuted a mother whose two elementary school children had a combined 116 absences in a single school year. The mother had disregarded and failed to respond to 15-20 previous outreach efforts. However, the district must engage in multiple intervention steps before a parent is prosecuted to provide extensive opportunities for families to correct attendance problems.”
The Harris report recommended that parents be “imprisoned for truancy violations in only the most extreme cases — it is both traumatic for children and families and costly for taxpayers.”
So, it seems that Harris was aware the state law she championed included a potential jail penalty. Her report also mentions one “extreme” case in which a mother was jailed.
That may be why she is so careful in answering questions these days about the anti-truancy initiative.
In an interview published March 14, NPR asked Harris what was on her mind when she decided to prosecute parents whose kids missed school. She prefaced her answer like this:
“So, I did an analysis when I was DA ... ”
And everything that follows in her answer is about the San Francisco program, including this claim: “Nobody went to jail, and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of families went through our program.”
Interviewed by the Root in February, Harris gave another version of the same answer.
“When I was district attorney, I did an analysis ... ”
And everything that follows is about San Francisco, too, even though her interviewer, Starr, had asked about “your time as prosecutor and attorney general.”
Ian Sams, a Harris spokesman, said that because Starr then went on to note in his question that “no parents were jailed,” the senator assumed he was asking only about San Francisco.
In her recently published memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” Harris addresses the parental prosecutions.
“Even today, others don’t appreciate the intention behind my approach; they assume that my motivation was to lock up parents, when of course that was never the goal,” she wrote. “Our effort was designed to connect parents to resources that could help them get their kids back into school, where they belonged. We were trying to support parents, not punish them — and in the vast majority of cases, we succeeded. Still, I was willing to be the bad guy if it meant highlighting an issue that otherwise would have received too little attention. Political capital doesn’t gain interest. You have to spend it to make a difference.”
This passage is about her San Francisco program. Her memoir doesn’t address the parents who were jailed as a result of the California law she championed.
The Pinocchio Test
When she is asked about her anti-truancy initiative these days, Harris carefully frames her answers in terms of what happened in San Francisco when she was district attorney. No parents were jailed there, so her responses cannot be faulted for being inaccurate.
But they can be faulted for lacking context. Harris went on to become the attorney general of California. She championed a law that other district attorneys outside San Francisco used to jail at least a handful of parents. The Root asked about Harris’s anti-truancy measures in a question about her time as district attorney and attorney general, but she gave only half an answer. It’s a significant omission worth Two Pinocchios.
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