Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Bad Idea


"One thing we'll be talking about," Roland Martin states in the video below, "is a prosecutor using the threat of jail to deal with truancy. Is that a proper thing to do in this country?"

Martin was addressing remarks made by then-San Francisco District Attorney and now-US Senator and presidential candidate, Kamala Harris in a speech given to the Commonwealth Club on January 14, 2010. The prosecutor commented

I would not be standing here were it not for the education I received and I know many of us will say the same thing. And 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. Well, this was a little controversial in San Francisco.

After chuckling at her great good humor, Harris continued

Frankly, my staff went bananas. They were very concerned because I didn't know at the time if I was going to have an opponent in my re-election race. I said "look, I'm done. This is a serious issue and I have a little political capital and I'm going to spend some of it."

And that is what we did. We recognized that in that initiative as a prosecutor in law enforcement, I have a big 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, on my letterhead- now let me tell you something about my letterhead. 

When you're D.A. of a major city in this country, usually, the job comes with a badge and there often is an artistic rendering of said badge on your stationery. So I sent a letter out on my letterhead to every parent in the school district outlining the connection that was statistically proven between eliminating 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 in 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."





No one has been put under oath, so we'll have to assume that in a city of 806,000 people, Ms.. Harris had one friend naive enough to believe that the District Attorney was going to "put them in jail" because the youngster did not attend school. Alternatively, her friend was willing to con his children into believing they and their parents would be incarcerated.

That presupposes, of course, that the kind of child sufficiently irresponsible to skip school regularly would gather around the ol' living room with her siblings and not be delighted that her parents are being threatened with jail. It implies also that the typical truant has a stable home environment with two parents. That's a nice thought, and also unrealistic because if there are two parents in the home, one or both of them probably would already have kept the offspring in line.

As a prosecutor, Harris would know that truancy is not a crime, at least not in California. Yet, she proclaimed it "tantamount to a crime" and she must understand that one of the primary tenets of an effective criminal justice system is holding individuals accountable for their own actions.

The corollary is to hold accountable for actions only those actually responsible for those actions. If D.A. Harris believed that truancy is tantamount to a crime, she could have held required the youngster face the consequences of her actions. However, we do not know whether she did so, only that her friend told his children "if you don't go to school, Kamala's going to put you and me in jail."

If the district attorney did so, it was probably overly punitive. If she did not do so, she was laying out consequences she had no intention to enforce, ultimately encouraging further truancy once it became obvious that she was all bark, no bite.

Without knowing all the details, we cannot know for sure how it worked out in practice. What we do know, however, is that traditionally very few prosecutors lose any votes for appearing "tough," even in San Francisco. There, as elsewhere, it is the Judge- not the District Attorney- who can "put you and me in jail."  (Obviously, it is the law enforcement officer but the Judge issues the order.) In this case, Harris was either putting on act- which is likely- or implemented a policy which, given limited resources, was probably applied arbitrarily.

Kamala Harris may simply have been doing what elected prosecutors do to make sure they aren't turned out of office. But the policy was either stupid, not what it seemed, or both.



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