In early 2019, California Sen. Kamala Harris became one of the first few Democrats to announce her candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 2020. Her announcement on 21 January prompted the kind of scrutiny and commentary that has become typical when any high-profile politician officially declares designs on the White House.
In the case of Harris, some observers focused on her background as the San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, and her reputation as a “law-and-order” prosecutor.
As part of this scrutiny, old video footage re-emerged online that some commentators said showed Harris “boasting” and “laughing” about prosecuting poor parents — especially one homeless woman — for the truancy of their children.
On 28 January, journalist Walker Bragman posted video clips from a speech Harris delivered in 2010 at the California Commonwealth Club, a public-policy forum:
Kamala Harris at an event hosted by the Commonwealth Club in 2010, explaining her decision as San Francisco DA to get tough on truancy.
Critics of truancy crackdowns say such efforts unfairly target poor parents and children without actually helping students. pic.twitter.com/GKkDpayxuv
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) January 28, 2019
These video clips prompted news articles and opinion columns claiming that Harris, purportedly showing a callous and uncaring attitude towards the plight of poor people, had been caught on camera “laughing” and “boasting” about her prosecution of a homeless mother.
Fox News posted an article with the headline “2010 video shows Kamala Harris boasting about prosecuting parents, including homeless mom with two jobs, whose kids missed classes.” Nathan Robinson wrote an opinion column for The Guardian with the headline “Kamala Harris laughed about jailing parents over truancy. But it’s not funny”:
“Harris cheerfully recounts the story of sending an attorney from her office to intimidate a homeless single mother whose children were missing school. She smiles as she recalls how she instructed her subordinates to ‘look really mean’ so that the mother would take the threat of jail seriously.”
The website Grit Post published an article with the headline “Kamala Harris Once Bragged About Prosecuting a Homeless Single Mom Working Two Jobs.”
What Kamala Harris said
The January 2019 controversy centered on a speech Harris gave on 14 January 2010 at the California Commonwealth Club, at a time when she was the district attorney (D.A.) of San Francisco and was running for California attorney general. She was also promoting her 2009 book Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer.
In her speech, Harris recounted her experiences and record as San Francisco D.A. and advocated a “smart-on-crime” approach to criminal justice, which she outlined as a combination of aggressive prosecution of violent crime, along with with her “Back on Track” program, which was designed to reduce recidivism (re-offending) among 18-24-year-old, first-time, low-level drug offenders, many of whom Harris noted were parents.
Harris also spoke about the anti-truancy campaign she led as San Francisco D.A., one that preceded a significant decline in elementary school truancy and absenteeism in San Francisco but attracted some criticism for confronting parents with the potential legal consequences of allowing their children to miss school, as well as occasionally imposing criminal penalties.
In the lead-up to the remarks that resurfaced in January 2019, Harris discussed the value of education and described the impetus for her truancy crackdown as being the high prevalence of high school dropouts among homicide victims and perpetrators. As she framed it, the anti-truancy initiative was motivated by a desire to prevent, in advance, the kind of educational disengagement linked to future violent criminality and victimization:
… I believe a child going without education is tantamount to a crime, so I decided I was going to start prosecuting parents for truancy. Well, this was a little controversial in San Francisco [laughs] and frankly my staff went bananas, they were very concerned because we didn’t know at the time whether I was going to have an opponent in my re-election race. But I said ‘Look, I’m done. This is a serious issue, and I’ve got a little political capital and I’m going to spend some of it.’ And this is what we did. We recognized that, in that [anti-truancy] initiative, as a prosecutor and law enforcement [official], I have a huge stick, 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.
So to that end…I sent a letter out on my letterhead, to every parent in the school district, outlining the connection that was statistically proven, between elementary school truancy, high school dropouts, who will become a victim of crime and who will become a perpetrator of crime. We sent it out to everyone. A friend of mine actually called me and he said “Kamala, my wife got the letter. She freaked out. She brought all the kids into the living room, held up the letter, said ‘If you don’t go to school, Kamala’s going to put you and me in jail?!'” [laughs] Yes, we achieved the intended effect. And here’s what we also did — we created what we called the D.A. Mediation Program where we assigned prosecutors to go and sit with the administrators and principals when they met with all the parents. And frankly, you know the prosecutors in my office who volunteered to do this? My homicide prosecutors, my gang prosecutors. And they went over there and I said “When you go over there, look really mean” [laughs] and so they did. And invariably the parents said “Well who’s the mean-looking dude?” and the principal would say “Well that’s someone that mean D.A. Kamala Harris sent over here ‘cos she said she’s going to start prosecuting you if we can’t work this out.
And through that initiative we found cases like the case of the woman who was by herself, raising her three children, holding down two jobs, and homeless. She just needed some help. But by shining this infrared spotlight of “public safety” on the fact that her children aren’t in school, we were able to figure that out, get her access to services that exist, and through that process, the attendance of her children improved, we dismissed the charges against her and overall we’ve improved attendance for this population in San Francisco by 20 percent over the last two years.
The first fact to note is that Harris, according to her account, did not prosecute the homeless woman in question to the extent of a criminal trial, conviction, and punishment, because that was not the ultimate goal of the program. The anti-truancy program worked in that case as it was intended.
By confronting the mother with the negative potential outcome of criminal conviction, San Francisco authorities were able to bring her into a process that involved providing her help and resources that she would otherwise not have received, while also motivating her (albeit in a coercive manner that some observers have criticized) to ensure her children attended school, thus making it statistically less likely they would end up as the victims or perpetrators of crime. As Harris said, that outcome meant her office was able to dismiss the charges against the mother.
Harris wrote about the same woman in her 2009 book Smart on Crime, many of whose anecdotes she repeated in her Commonwealth Club speech. There she specified that the provision of services, a key part of the truancy policy that many 2019 critics did not mention, included finding housing for the previously homeless woman:
“The picture began to brighten. At one high school, overall attendance among the one hundred students in the [District Attorney] mediation program improved 40 percent. At another elementary school, we saw a 75 percent drop in the number of chronically absent students. Along the way, we learned some things about the situations some of these families faced and found we could help. For example, we met a mother with three children who was homeless and holding down two jobs trying to get her situation under control; we referred her to community resources to find stable housing and get her children to school.”
So when Harris recounted with satisfaction the story of that homeless woman, she was in fact describing a case in which the anti-truancy program had the result of forcing the woman, on pain of prosecution, into an administrative process whereby she was provided with housing and services and given both help and coercive incentive, which resulted in her children’s attending school more.
Further details on the mechanics and procedures involved in the truancy initiative can be found here, but the key point is that the purpose of the program was not to criminally prosecute or jail parents of truant children. In fact, such an outcome would mean the program had failed. Its purpose was to use the threat of prosecution to “bring parents to the table” and initiate a series of steps that (crucially) involved providing services and resources to parents and did indeed have the effect of lowering the rate of truancy in San Francisco.
That is not to support or defend the program itself, or endorse the remarks made by Kamala Harris in her 2010 speech, or the tone in which they were delivered. Rather, our point here is to accurately describe what the program actually entailed, and therefore what it was Harris recounted with satisfaction before the Commonwealth Club.
What Harris was celebrating or “boasting” or “bragging” about was not the prosecution or jailing of a homeless mother, but rather the fact that the successful implementation of her anti-truancy program had avoided the need to prosecute or jail that mother. And it had the effect of bringing her children back to school, an outcome that is linked to a lower statistical risk of becoming a victim or perpetrator of crime.
It is therefore a significant misunderstanding (or misrepresentation) of the facts to claim, as Fox News did, that Harris was “boasting” about prosecuting parents, or to claim, as Grit Post did, that “Kamala Harris once bragged about prosecuting a homeless single mom working two jobs.”
Nathan Robinson, in his column for The Guardian, conflated two separate anecdotes and falsely claimed that Harris had “cheerfully recounted” her instructions to prosecutors to “look really mean” in order to “intimidate a homeless single mother.” Harris was recalling her instructions to prosecutors when attending D.A. mediations involving dozens of parents and school administrators, not gleefully ordering them to target a specific homeless mother for intimidation.
It is true, though, that the threat of prosecution and the involvement of San Francisco’s top prosecutor, District Attorney Kamala Harris, was an essential component of the anti-truancy program, even if its end goal was not the criminal prosecution of parents. So it is understandable that some observers in 2019 misunderstood or misrepresented the actual mechanics and purpose of the anti-truancy program and therefore the meaning and significance of what Harris said in her January 2010 speech at the Commonwealth Club.