This Is What Truancy Laws Do

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Earlier this week, a video clip of Kamala Harris speaking in 2010 at an event hosted by the Commonwealth Club started making the rounds. The clip shows Harris, who was then the district attorney of San Francisco, championing her efforts to combat chronic school truancy by prosecuting parents of students who habitually missed class. “This was a little controversial in San Francisco,” she said with a laugh.

As a then-candidate for California’s attorney general—and after her victory in 2010—she had pushed the state to pass and implement one of the harshest anti-truancy laws in the nation, one that would penalize parents of students who were chronically absent from school with up to a year in potential jail time or a fine of up to $2,500. “We recognized that in that initiative, as a prosecutor and law enforcement, I have a huge stick,” she said in 2010. “The school district has got a carrot. Let’s work in tandem around our collective objective and goal, which is to get those kids in school.”

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Harris had also previously detailed her approach in an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, focusing on the story of one student named Michael:

Combatting truancy is a smart approach to crime prevention. Every fall I send out letters to parents of all SFUSD students informing them that truancy is against the law. During the school year, prosecutors from my office hold mediations with parents and truant students to reinforce this message and urge them to get help to improve their children’s attendance. In most cases, attendance improves.

When it does not, my office prosecutes parents in a specialized truancy court we created that combines close court monitoring with tailored family services. To date, I have prosecuted 20 parents of young children for truancy. The penalty for truancy charged as a misdemeanor is a fine of up to $2,500 or up to a year of jail. Our groundbreaking strategy has worked. After Michael’s parents did not respond to repeated pleas from the school district to get him in class, my investigators served his parents with criminal complaints. His parents appeared in court and agreed to work to get needed services and get Michael back in school. Michael missed only three days the following school year. He got extra attention from teachers to get on track and one parent has even become a school volunteer.

Nearly a decade later, Harris wrote in her memoir that her efforts to combat chronic truancy were a priority for her at the time, “Indeed, instituting a statewide plan on truancy was part of the reason I’d run for the office in the first place.”

Describing her plan in the book as an “early interventions” that could “keep children safe and on track,” Harris linked missing school with the potential for future violence: “The truant child became the wanderer... who became the target for gang recruiters... who became the young drug courier... who became the perpetrator—or the victim—of violence.”

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But the centerpiece of her efforts was, as she described it in her 2010 speech, the “stick” of potential jail time and fines.

And she used it. In 2009, her office stated it had brought charges against 20 parents on truancy-related cases. In 2012, as a result of the statewide law that passed with Harris’s backing, one woman, Lorraine Cuevas, was sentenced to 180 days in jail, after her two young children missed more than 100 days of school. The local DA’s office, like Harris and many others, tied it to keeping kids off of the streets. “If they are in school they are less likely to be involved in gangs or drugs,” James Jahn of the county district attorney’s office said at the time. The local superintendent Tim Bowers described Cuevas’s jailing as “unfortunate” but “an appropriate response to a serious situation.” But one parent at the elementary school where Cuevas’s children were enrolled was more skeptical, asking what would seem to many to be a more pressing question: “Who’s going to watch her kids? I think 180 days is extreme.”

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In her memoir, Harris addressed critics of her truancy program head-on: “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. 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.”

Arresting parents for their children’s truancy is nothing new, and are often framed as a last-ditch effort meant to shame parents. (“I think shame should be part of the equation,” one state’s attorney in Florida said in 2002.) In 2014, a Pennsylvania woman who was serving a two-day jail sentence in order to wipe out $2,000 in truancy fines was found dead in her cell; she was just one of more than 1,600 people in Berks County, the majority of whom were women, who were jailed over an inability to pay truancy fines from 2000 to 2014. And more recently, last year, a woman in Michigan, Brittany Ann Horton, was jailed after her six-year-old daughter missed more than two weeks of school. County prosecutor D.J. Hilson stressed that “our office does not file charges against parents who are genuinely trying to resolve the issues” and that most cases don’t end up resulting in criminal charges. But, Hilson added, “when parents like Ms. Horton refuse to make reasonable efforts to address the truancy problem, our office is committed to making sure the children of our community are not deprived of an education.” He continued: “Had Ms. Horton met with us, the school or service providers, she would have been provided any services needed to address any possible issues.”

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Despite the apparent intent of the laws being an agreeable one—kids should attend school—these laws don’t necessarily do that. As Dana Goldstein wrote at the New Republic in 2015, “Such interventions have not been proven to increase school attendance or decrease long-term criminal behavior. In fact, the criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty.”

Julianne Hing, writing at ColorLines in 2010, outlined more of the consequences of these policies for Black and Latino families:

While on the surface, anti-truancy programs have a great ring to them–Harris has adopted the phrase “smart on crime” as her tagline–there’s another side to anti-truancy programs. Last year ColorLines covered anti-truancy programs in Los Angeles Unified School District that mandated $250 tickets be handed out to students who were late to school. Once they’d received a citation, students had to show up in court accompanied by their parents on a school day to either pay the fine or plead their case. Every subsequent offense led to more expensive tickets and more serious punishments. LA parents were warned that they could lose their public benefits if their students didn’t show up to school on time, and the harsh policy has ended up creating truants instead of curbing truancy.

It was black and Latino youth who were more likely to get caught up in the system–it’s also black and Latino youth who are more likely to be poor, more likely to depend on unreliable public transit to get to school and more likely to have younger siblings to take care of and family responsibilities to tend.

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Harris’s work as a prosecutor has received necessary scrutiny in the lead up to her 2020 campaign announcement, with many progressives and leftists pointing to her record as a prosecutor and attorney general as a reason to view her more recent turn toward the left with skepticism.

This kind of critique isn’t limited to Harris—Democrats have for decades marched in lockstep to help create our mass incarceration crisis and punish poverty with criminalization—but as Harris runs on a platform of being “for the people” and touts her criminal justice reform record, it’s worth asking what those things have looked like for most of her career.

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Update (January 30, 2018, 10:02 a.m.): A campaign spokesperson responded, writing, “Sen. Harris believed that a critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older is to keep them in school when they’re young.”

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