In a 2010 video, Sen. Kamala Harris, who at the time was California’s attorney general, described with self-satisfaction how being tough on truancy got results when she was San Francisco’s district attorney.
Harris said parents responded to a new approach, led by her office, that called for threatening them with criminal charges and jail if their kids had chronic school absences.
Laughing, Harris said she wanted to scare parents by sending prosecutors who worked on gang and murder cases to meet with them about their children’s truancy.
Harris, who recently announced she is running for president, said in the video that she would urge the prosecutors to “really look mean."
Then, to show how she had gotten a parent to shape up, she shared the story of a homeless single mother who held two jobs and had three children who were not going to all their classes.
Harris, smiling, said that after the mother was charged and threatened with jail, the kids’ attendance improved.
“By shining this infrared spotlight of public safety on the fact that her children aren’t in school,” Harris said, “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 video, posted on Twitter by Walker Bragman, whose profile says he is a journalist, has refocused attention on the California Democrat’s hardline days as a prosecutor and elicited a torrent of criticism on social media.
Bragman tweeted: “Kamala Harris continued on to describe how she'd brought charges against a single homeless mother of 3 who was working 2 jobs because her children were truant…and this was a success story.”
Another person, Jermane Lee Willis, posted: “Kamala Harris loves to put desperate people in jail. Here, she giddily recalls the time a father said his wife had to sit down the kids and tell them to obey the police and go to school or everyone's going to jail. Is this a healthy learning environment?”
Demi, whose handle is @demisaysstuff said: “I feel like terrorism isn’t the best method to reduce truancy."
It was language, Bragman noted, that Harris had used a few times to describe her toughness as a prosecutor.
But as she tries to drum up support to be the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential election, Harris has found herself on the defensive over some of her actions as prosecutor.
Writing in Glamour earlier this month over her misgivings regarding Harris, Morgan Jerkins, author of “This Will Be My Undoing,” said: “While [Kamala Harris] has said she’s committed to such progressive goals as weed legalization and restorative justice, she’s only just begun to reckon with and apologize for the part she (as prosecutor) played in strengthening systemic disparities among communities of color.”
“She’s earned the nickname Top Cop for a reason,” Jerkins said. “In the era of the Black Lives Matter movement and countless articles and books that document police surveillance and brutality toward black and brown people, for some black women the question is: What kind of voice would Harris be for us in the White House? And what would it take for us to back Harris’ historic bid?”
Since the video resurfaced, Harris and her campaign have defended her criminal justice background.
A Harris spokesman said to the Huffington Post: “She believed a critical way to keep kids out of jail when they’re older is to keep them in school when they’re young.”
The spokesman, who was not named, said that jail was one part of the program, which stressed having the schools work with the parents to resolve the issues underlying the truancy.
On Monday, at a CNN town hall, Harris said: “I’ve been consistent my whole career.”
“My career has been based on an understanding that, one, as a prosecutor, my duty was to seek and make sure that the most vulnerable and voiceless among us are protected. … I have also worked my whole career to reform the criminal justice system, understanding, to your point, that it is deeply flawed.”
At her announcement about entering the presidential race, Harris found herself defending her actions as a prosecutor, including supporting the California Department of Corrections in denying gender reassignment surgery to inmates. Harris argued decisions in that case were made by other people in her office who “do the work on a daily basis.”
“And do I wish that sometimes they would have personally consulted me before they wrote the things that they wrote?” Harris said. “Yes, I do.”
But, she added, “the buck stops with me. And I take full responsibility for what my office did.”