Kamala Harris’s truancy policies show double standard when prosecutors make mistakes

By Taina Vargas-Edmond

When I was in the ninth grade in 2003, my father went to jail, leaving my siblings and I to live in a motel with our mother who struggled with addiction. I got a job to help take care of the family and sank into a deep depression. I did not want to go to school and explain to my friends where my dad was or where we lived, so I missed about 80 percent of that school year. No one ever asked me if I was alright, or why I kept skipping school.

Instead, at the age of 14, I was threatened by teachers and administrators, given a citation by the Los Angeles Police Department for truancy, and fined $250.

That’s what it looks like to criminalize truancy, as Kamala Harris infamously did both as District Attorney in San Francisco and the state’s Attorney General. It means further traumatizing kids already enduring severe hardships and making it even less likely they will succeed in school. It is driven by an impulse to punish, not help, and it creates lasting, often intergenerational, harm.

At her side was Suzy Loftus, who is now running for District Attorney and promoting her experience working for Harris as a valued credential. As Chief of Policy in the DA’s office under Harris, Loftus “coordinated all aspects to the District Attorney’s legislative agenda” and managed Truancy Court, the forum for parents that Harris’s policy pulled into the criminal legal system.

Loftus worked for Harris as she championed a new law that attached criminal penalties to school absences, and she followed Harris to the Attorney General’s office, serving as Special Assistant, where Harris turned her war on truancy into a statewide campaign.

Now both Harris and Loftus agree that it’s wrongheaded to drop the blunt hammer of law enforcement on the parents of kids who miss school. They appear to accept, as they seek support from progressive voters, that we cannot punish our way into better school attendance and academic performance, especially when kids face deeply systemic barriers like poverty, homelessness, and poor healthcare.

But that isn’t enough to address the harm they have wrought. Neither Harris nor Loftus have taken responsibility for or even acknowledged the harm these policies have caused. Loftus, unconvincingly, said the policy was understandable as a strategy to reduce gun violence. Harris feigned surprise that anyone landed in jail — “unintended consequences,” she said — and said her intention all along was “to support parents, not punish them.”

Indeed, in rolling out her criminal justice platform this week, Harris bizarrely claimed that she always saw the injustice in her policies, but did nothing because she was “swimming against the current” of public opinion. In other words, in Harris’s telling, everyone else but her is to blame.

In my case, my mother could not afford the fine for truancy, and we both had to attend several court hearings to prove that I was attending school. Because I was never able to pay, I was placed on a DMV hold and was not able to get my driver’s license until I turned 18. After my dad was released from jail a year later, I got back on track. I graduated with a 3.7 GPA before going on to college and grad school.

As a middle school teacher in Alameda County, I saw the school-to-prison pipeline continue to play out in our young children’s lives. In 2012, I had an eighth grade student who missed about half the school year. The school told me I had to report his mother to prosecutors. I refused. I went to his house and learned that he too was dealing with depression. His father had died and his mother had cancer.

Earlier this year, the Huffington Post reported the story of Cheree Peoples, an Orange County woman whose daughter often missed school because of acute pain and other complications from sickle cell anemia. Prosecutors charged her under the Harris-endorsed law and her case dragged on for years before it was finally dismissed.

Prosecutors routinely demand that those who are convicted of crime accept and acknowledge their accountability to victims. And prosecutors who perpetrate harm should be held to the same standard. These parents and children — Ms. Peoples and her daughter, my student and her mother, my siblings and I — are the victims in these stories. Harris and Loftus and others who pushed these aggressive policies should express the same sort of remorse and accept the same responsibility they demand of others.

Yet nothing they have said would count as contrition or a meaningful step toward accountability. Their rationalizations wouldn’t work for someone seeking leniency from our justice system, and shouldn’t work for someone seeking power.

Prosecutors should not gloss over their ugly records or make excuses. Ms. Peoples and her daughter deserve better. My former student and I deserved better. We all deserve better.

Taina Vargas-Edmond is founder and executive director of Initiate Justice, an advocacy group created by and for incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people and people with incarcerated loved ones.

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