Discussion in 'Politics and the Topics of the day' started by thoughtone, Jan 31, 2019.
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Kamala Harris Hits Campaign Trail, Drawing 20000 in Hometown Rally
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Harris town hall sets CNN viewing record
The televised town hall with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) set a CNN viewing record, the network said Tuesday.
The event, moderated by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday night in Des Moines, Iowa, averaged 1.957 million views — the most for a single-candidate town hall in the network's history, and 75 percent above its four-week average in the 10 p.m slot, CNN said in a news release, citing Nielsen ratings. Monday's average of 712,000 viewers aged 25-45 eclipsed its competitors in that key demographic: MSNBC had 404,000 during the same hour, while Fox News had 395,000.
The highest-rated single-candidate town hall on cable news among all viewers was in August 2016, when 2.7 million people watched Donald Trump on Fox News, a little more than two months before he was elected.
The town hall allowed Harris to outline her platform as she vies for her party’s presidential nomination. Harris officially announced her candidacy Sunday and entered a potentially crowded field, from veteran Democrats like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York to newer faces on the national stage like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
During the event, Harris laid out several policy objectives, including an endorsement of a “Green New Deal” to combat climate change, calling the issue an “existential threat.” Harris also castigated the Trump administration for its handling of undocumented immigrants and the president’s fight for a border wall, accusing the president of playing with the lives of undocumented immigrants for political gain.
Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, also defended her record in law enforcement, which has been criticized by some more liberal elements of the Democratic Party for being too tough on crime. Harris said she had been “consistent my whole career” and that she had worked to reform the criminal justice system, listing initiatives she’s taken to improve accountability among California law enforcement.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated a viewing record that CNN set on Monday night. It was for the network, not for all cable news.
Many are fawning over Senator Kamala Harris' presidential bid announcement.
I myself won't automatically support her just because she has "Black" ancestry or that she belongs to a "Black" sorority or because she went to an HBCU. If we have learned anything, we have learned that when a "Black" politician wants to appeal to the mainstream, the first thing they do is attempt to prove that they can "tough" on their own supposed people.
Senator Harris has some question to answer:
The Two Faces of Kamala Harris
By BRANKO MARCETIC
Kamala Harris has matched every one of her progressive achievements with conservative ones.
The first seven months of the Trump administration has seen an ever-changing coterie of high-profile Democrats probing the possibility of launching a 2020 run to take back the White House, from Joe Biden and Corey Booker, to Kirsten Gillibrand and Deval Patrick, and maybe even Hillary Clinton for a third time. The latest name to join this carousel of political ambition is recently elected California Senator Kamala Harris. Her rise to the top of the 2020 shortlist has been long in the making, with Democratic bigwigs recognizing her potential star power as early as 2008, when she campaigned for Obama.
Harris’s rise has produced a fiery debate among liberals and the Left. Leftists and progressives have come out in strong opposition to Harris’s candidacy, with some declaring #NeverKamala and some high-profile Bernie Sanders supporters, such as National Nurses United executive director RoseAnn DeMoro, making clear their lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy. For some prominent liberals, this pushback is simply the product of virulent racism and sexism among an imagined (and non-existent) all-white, all-male, Sanders-supporting base.
While most Harris-supporting liberals wouldn’t go this far, there is deep suspicion among some Democrats that opposition to Harris is motivated by similarly less-than-noble motives — namely, that it’s part of a project of poisoning the well for any potential challengers of a Bernie Sanders or Sanders-like candidacy in 2020.
In truth, there is much about Harris’s long record as a public prosecutor in California — the vast bulk of her career — that is up for legitimate criticism by any prospective 2020 Democratic voters.
Throughout her career, Harris has been called the “female Obama.” In reference to her race, this is lazy and arguably even racist. But the comparison is apt with reference to her politics. Harris has emulated the Obama approach, delivering a combination of some notable progressive victories and pleasant rhetoric and a steadfast avoidance of structural change — paired, in some cases, with far-from-progressive policies.
Where Credit is Due
First, the good. Harris’s career has been laudatory at times.
The first test of Harris’s principles came in 2004, after she was elected as San Francisco’s district attorney (DA) while promising never to impose capital punishment. Less than six months into her tenure, Harris defied a united chorus of voices — from the city’s police chief and police rank and file, to Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein — calling for the death penalty for a twenty-one-year-old who killed an undercover police officer.
During the officer’s funeral, two thousand officers gave Feinstein a standing ovation after a speech in which she criticized Harris, who was also at the funeral. The state’s attorney general and former senator Barbara Boxer (whose seat Harris has now taken) looked for ways to circumvent Harris’s decision, but ultimately failed. Thanks in large part to Harris’s steadfastness, the killer was spared the death penalty.
In other words, at the very start of her career, Harris defied her own party, her city’s police department, and endured public humiliation to defy reactionary demands.
Later, in 2009, Harris’s Republican rival for attorney general attempted to use her anti-capital punishment stance against her and turn the race, in his words, into “a referendum on the death penalty.” Harris didn’t budge.
Harris has been a frequent critic of the criminal justice system, an encouraging sign. She outlined her philosophy in her 2009 bookSmart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safe, the title of which has become a common refrain for Harris. Her “smart” approach, according to the book, involves focusing on “short-circuiting the criminal careers of offenders much earlier,” “getting offenders out of the system permanently,” ensuring “lower rates of recidivism,” and “investing in comprehensive efforts to reduce the ranks of young offenders entering the criminal justice system.” One of her suggestions was to teach nonviolent inmates and some juvenile offenders skills for employment.
To that end, Harris supported reforming California’s three-strikes law, refrained from seeking life sentences for criminals who committed nonviolent “third strikes,” and in 2004 instituted the Back on Track program, which put first-time offenders between ages eighteen and twenty-four into eighteen-month-long city college apprentice programs, which contributed to the city’s recidivism rates dropping from 54 percent to 10 percent in six years. She would later order parole officers not to enforce residency restrictions against sex offenders.
Over her time as DA and, later, as California attorney general, she took a number of progressive stances. She opposed the anti-gay Proposition 8, helped defend Obamacare in court, supported an undocumented immigrant’s bid for a law license, sponsoredlegislation that increased transparency around websites’ data collection, opposed California’s despicable “shoot the gays” ballot initiative, and filed a brief in the Supreme Court encouraging it to allow public universities to consider race in admissions. Under her direction, the state’s justice department adopted body cameras, California police were made to undergo implicit racial bias training, and her office received an award for accelerating the testing of rape kits.
Harris also had a respectable record of standing up to corporate malfeasance. She filed a friend-of-the-court brief signed by thirty-one other state attorneys general in 2011 in a Supreme Court case looking to end the practice of drug companies paying competitors to keep generic versions of their drugs off the market. In 2012, she set up a privacy enforcement protection unit in the attorney general’s office, which at one point fined a company for surreptitiously installing spyware on its customers’ computers.
In 2011, she brought the largest fraud settlement in decades against a company that had spent fifteen years overcharging the state’s insurance program for the poor and disabled. She reached a $6.5 million settlement with two former Countrywide executives over predatory lending and called for a Homeowners’ Bill of Rights, which led foreclosures to plummet in the state and Daily Kos to declare her“a bankster’s worst nightmare.”
Harris also has a strong history of going after polluters. As district attorney, she created San Francisco’s first Environmental Justice Unit and went after cases involving illegal dumping and air pollution. As attorney general, she went after companies including BP, Chevron, Comcast, Cosco Busan, ExxonMobil, and South California Gas Company, with Cosco Busan agreeing to the largest settlement of its kind for its 2007 spill in the San Francisco Bay.
With Trump in office, Harris has become even more outspoken. She’s come out in support of single-payer health care and free college tuition for families earning less than $140,000 a year. She’s a frequent critic of Trump’s policies. In her short time in the Senate, she’s put forward bills to end the pay gap for black women and clarify the rightsof people detained at US ports of entry, and cosponsored bills to raise the federal minimum wage, close tax loopholes for Big Oil, ban agricultural use of dangerous pesticides, and stop new oil and gas leases as well as the renewal of old ones in the Arctic Ocean.
Going by all this, Harris’s record seems impressive. But it and, indeed, her commitment to her stated principles, is less pristine upon closer inspection.
“Smart on Crime”
Much as Obama pursued policies starkly opposed to his own rhetoric, Harris’s record is defined by policies that undercut her proclaimed vision.
The death penalty is a prime example. Harris deserves credit for refusing to execute a man while under tremendous pressure to do so. But despite her vaunted personal opposition, she never challenged the death penalty during her time as attorney general — and in fact did the very opposite, actively working to keep it in existence.
When a federal judge ruled California’s enforcement of the death penalty unconstitutional, Harris appealed what she called a “flawed” decision. She would continue to defend the death penalty as the case wound through the federal courts.
One might counter that it’s the job of the attorney general to defend state law, regardless of her views. Yet in stark contrast, Harris refusedto defend the anti-gay Proposition 8 in court, calling it “a proposition that was found by a judge to be unconstitutional.”
You can see this pattern in Harris’s approach to criminal justice. Today, Harris talks a good game. She attacked her rival for Boxer’s senate seat for helping “fuel America’s mass incarceration crisis by voting to send more kids to prison, build more prisons and ratchet up mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes.” She penned an op-edabout the tragedy of female incarceration, pointing out the abuse women receive in prisons, as well as prison’s economic costs to their dependents. She often says that the question of whether one should be “soft” or “tough” on crime is a false choice, and that one should instead be “smart” on crime.
Yet Harris’s “smart on crime” approach seems remarkably similar to a “tough on crime” one.
outlines, “Kamala believes that we must maintain a relentless focus on reducing violence and aggressively prosecuting violent criminals.” Fittingly, when she became San Francisco DA, the felony conviction rate rose from 52 percent to 67 percent in three years.
In practice, Harris defended California’s uniquely cruel three-strikes law, the only one in the country which imposed life sentences for a third “strike” that was any minor felony. She urged voters to reject Proposition 66, a ballot initiative that would have reformed the harsh law by making only serious or violent felonies trigger life sentences.
Harris promised that if voters rejected the initiative, she would put forward her own, different reform. But Harris’s proposal was a tepid half-measure: it simply eliminated some third strikes. Harris would later support a different ballot measure that was identical to Proposition 66, but continued to allow anyone previously convicted of murder, rape, or child molestation to receive life sentences for relatively minor third strikes (though it did also allow those with non-serious third strikes to petition for re-sentencing).
Harris’s bullishness on three strikes was unusual. When she ran for attorney general, her Republican opponent actually ran to her left on the issue. In fact, four years earlier, as the Los Angeles County district attorney, he had proposed a reform of the law. Harris had not supported it.
Sure, Harris had a reputation for being one of the few prosecutors who held off on seeking life sentences for nonviolent third strikes. But this meant little when leaving the law in place meant future, more aggressive prosecutors were free to keep imposing unjust sentences.
Fortunately, eventual reforms to the law meant this never happened, though it was no thanks to Harris. In 2012 and 2014, California voters passed two ballot initiatives that gave judges more discretion in sentencing and retroactively scaled back punishment for certain low-level crimes. Harris didn’t take a public position on either, claiming that taking a side would come into conflict with her duty to write the ballot text. A fellow Democrat who had preceded her as attorney general called the excuse “baloney.”
Harris’s commitment to harsh punitive measures wasn’t limited to the three-strikes law. For all her recent concern about the incarceration of women and its economic effects, as district attorney, she successfully championed a statewide version of an anti-truancy law she had put in place in San Francisco that threatened parents of chronically truant children with as much as a $2,000 fine and a year in jail. By October 2012, two mothers had been imprisoned under the law.
“We are putting parents on notice,” she said in her inaugural speech as attorney general. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
Harris’s championing of the measures was an outgrowth of what she described as a passion for the issue of truancy that she had held since becoming San Francisco’s district attorney. But for its part, the Los Angeles Daily News — in an editorial that endorsed her, no less — argued that “it was hard not to conclude that Harris chose truancy as an election-season focus because it’s an issue without much political risk.”
At the time, Harris was pushing for statewide data collection on truancy, which she said would inform future anti-truancy policies and was something she had first introduced in San Francisco. Yet when the Daily News asked her what this data collection in the city had shown, “she seemed not to know or have thought about it,” the paper wrote.
Harris’s actions in the Daniel Larsen case are particularly concerning.
The Larsen case was a travesty of justice from start to finish. In 1999, when two police officers claimed they saw Larsen, who had earlier in his life been convicted for burglary, pull a six-inch-long knife from his waistband and throw it under a car, he was sentenced to twenty-seven years to life under the three-strikes law supported by Harris.
Forget for a second that the sentence was unduly harsh for the crime in question. Police had wrongly targeted Larsen for a search in the first place, and witnesses reported that it wasn’t Larsen but the man he was with who had thrown the knife. In trial, Larsen’s incompetent lawyer (who would later be disbarred) didn’t investigate a single witness, nor present one in trial.
Eleven years later, a judge reversed the conviction due to the lack of evidence and incompetence of Larson’s attorney’s. Yet two years later, Larsen was still in jail. Why? Because Harris, now a vocal opponent of mass incarceration, appealed the judge’s decision on the basis that Larsen had filed his paperwork too late — a technicality.
Tens of thousands of people petitioned Harris to release Larsen, and numerous civil rights groups similarly called on her to do the right thing. But even when he was eventually released from custody after fourteen years, Harris challenged his release, and five months later Larsen was back in court, fighting to stay out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Harris’s concern about mass incarceration similarly failed to come up when California Governor Jerry Brown reacted to a Supreme Court order to reduce prison overcrowding by announcing a $730 million plan to move inmates to private prisons and vacant county jails. One would expect Harris may have had some words of criticism, especially as California’s senate president had an alternative, better plan that focused on getting inmates mental health and drug treatment. But she was silent. San Jose’s Mercury News criticized her inaction, rightly pointing out that “she wrote a book about” the issue.
Harris has also recently taken up the habit of reminding us that “the war on drugs was a failure.” Yet Harris’s record on drug reform while attorney general is nonexistent.
She opted not to join in other states’ attempts to take marijuana off the DEA’s list of most dangerous substances. When Obama raided California’s medical marijuana dispensaries, Harris put out an empty statement. When asked about legalizing recreational marijuana in 2012, only a week after the New York Times endorsed national legalization and less than a year before she started warning about the failure of the war on drugs. Harris laughed. As was the case with respect to the three-strikes law, her 2014 Republican opponent ran to her left on the issue.
The limits of Harris’s approach are likewise evident in her actions on police shootings. She did back a bill that required reports on officer-involved shootings to be posted publicly online and mandated bias training and that justice department agents wear body cameras. But as district attorney, she refused to hand over the names of police officers whose testimonies had led to convictions despite the officers’ arrest records and histories of misconduct. As attorney general, she also opposed instituting police body cameras statewide and stood against a bill requiring her office to investigate fatal police shootings.
Members of California’s Legislative Black Caucus (who are fellow Democrats) criticized her over the latter, as did Melina Abdullah, a Black Lives Matter activist and professor of pan-African studies, who commented: “This is not the time for timidity. … Martin Luther King said if you tell black people to wait, that means never.”
These are just a few of a large group of civil rights advocates and activists who criticized her on the matter, including San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi and Phelicia Jones, an organizer with the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition and a former Harris supporter, who wondered “how many more people need to die” before Harris stepped in, and accused her of “turn[ing] your back on the people who got you to where you are.” Although Harris’s defenders have singled out a small number of her critics who are white, complaining that it’s “the same three people” criticizing of her, it’s not hard to find a range of people who criticize her record, many of whom are people of color.
In fact, despite being well-placed to reshape California’s criminal justice system, Harris has something of a reputation in the state as a marginal figure on the issue. As the Orange County Register put it, she was viewed by some as a “too-cautious and often calculating politician” who has avoided hot-button issues.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, told the Sacramento Bee that Harris could’ve been “a more vigorous advocate for full criminal justice reform” and that she was “unwilling to be big and bold.” “Harris’s role has not been pivotal” in reshaping the criminal justice system, the paper wrote. “The pyramid shook, but often it wasn’t her doing the shaking.”
Harris tried to dismiss a suit brought by California inmates over the state’s use of solitary confinement, with her office insisting “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California prisons” (despite this, the case ultimately turned into a landmark settlement that struck a blow against the practice). She tried to block a transgender inmate’s request for gender reassignment surgery. When a prosecuting attorney inserted a falsified confession into the transcript of a defendant’s confession, committing what an appeals court called “outrageous government misconduct,” Harris appealed the case, arguing that it wasn’t “outrageous” because it didn’t involve physical brutality.
One of the more egregious blots on Harris’s record is her hostility to sex workers’ rights.
fought a suit brought by a sex workers’ rights organization to legalize prostitution in California. But much worse was her hounding of Backpage, an online classified website frequently used by sex workers, which Harris brought criminal charges against suspiciously close to her senate election, accusing it of being “the world’s top online brothel.” The relentless pressure eventually forced the website to shut down its adult advertising section.
Backpage was by no means an admirable organization — it was frequently used for child sex trafficking in addition to ordinary sex work (although Lois Lee, who headed a shelter for sex trafficking victims, called its shutdown “a sad day” because it had been a “critical investigative tool” for law enforcement to recover missing children and prosecute pimps). But it was also a cheap, easy, and safe way for sex workers to find clients without having to go on the streets or work with pimps. Its closure threw sex workers into uncertainty and peril.
“Kamala Harris pressured that place to shut down, but she did not create any programs that are gonna help California mothers take better care of their families with better economic access to safe housing, education, health care,” one sex worker complained. “Sex workers choose to do this work so we can pay for those things.”
Harris has at least shown the capacity to move in the right direction on some issues. She recently penned a New York Times op-ed with Rand Paul explaining how bail “disproportionately harms people from low-income communities and communities of color,” calling for its reform or replacement (her and Paul put forward a bill to do so). But as late as June 2016 she was defending the constitutionality of bail in court. By December of that year, she was arguing the opposite.
Given Harris’s stance on crime, it’s perhaps unsurprising that she was not always the most ardent civil liberties defender.
It’s true that Harris ordered California parole officers not to enforce blanket residency restrictions on sex offenders. This order ended the unjust application of a law that in many cases made it impossible for someone convicted of a sex offense to live anywhere, and increased the homeless sex offender population by twenty-four times in three years. (In addition to the barbarity of making anyone homeless, sex offenders’ risk of reoffending rises dramatically with homelessness, arguably, and ironically, making the public less safe.)
But she had only done so after the state Supreme Court ruled the restrictions to be unconstitutional, and only after she had appealedthe same decision by a lower court. Harris supported Jessica’s Law, the ballot measure that instituted these rules, back in 2006. Similar to her stance on the three-strikes law, her 2010 Republican opponent ran to her left on this issue.
Around the same time, Harris sponsored legislation that would have banned sex offenders from using social media sites like Facebook. The bill received much criticism, not only due to concerns for privacy and civil liberties, but also because it was ineffective — most sex crimes against children are committed by people they know, and most adults who solicited sex from kids online weren’t registered sex offenders. But as many pointed out, Harris was sponsoring the bill the same year she was running to be attorney general.
Harris was also a big booster of familial DNA searches, a controversial technique whereby investigators compare a DNA sample to other samples in a DNA database to find possible relatives, then use additional genetic testing and analysis to confirm the match, all in order to solve crimes. Due to privacy concerns, the technique hasn’t been adopted in Canada, and was outlawed in both Maryland and DC. Among the concerns are the not-infrequent cases of human error in DNA evidence, the fact that familial testing would disproportionately impact communities of color, the potential revelation of family secrets, and the already existing instances of mistakes being made with the technique.
California was the first state to adopt the technique in 2009 under Jerry Brown, but Harris eagerly kept it going. In 2011, she announced new funding to double the amount of familial searches, telling the LA Times “California is on the cutting edge of this in many ways,” and that “I think we are going to be a model for the country. I really do.”
In fact, California’s use of familial DNA testing is particularly invasive, as the state allows the collection and preservation of DNA samples from anyone who is arrested, even if they’re not charged with a crime. The ACLU originally sued to block California’s DNA collection when an Oakland woman had been arrested during a San Francisco protest against the Iraq War and forced to give a DNA sample despite not being charged with any crime.
Harris was likewise a firm proponent of civil asset forfeiture, sponsoring a bill to allow prosecutors to seize profits before charges were even filed. Years before that, she opposed AB 639, a bill that aimed to reform asset forfeiture. The bill easily cleared the state assembly, but was soon scuttled by a united wall of opposition from law enforcement, with whom Harris was united.
There was also the case of the Sikh man who was barred from working as a prison guard because of his religiously mandated beard. Harris argued that his beard prevented him from being properly fitted with a gas mask, thus disqualifying him from the job, despite California’s corrections and rehabilitation department’s regulations allowing guards to have beards for certain medical reasons.
A number of civil rights and legal organizations — including the ACLU of Northern California, the Asian American Bar Association, and the Council on American Islamic Relations — wrote Harris a letter pointing out this inconsistency. She argued that the medical exemption only applied to guards who passed the mask fitting before the policy took effect, although the man’s attorney said this was untrue.
Any future Democratic president is going to inherit the now nearly sixteen-year-old “war on terror,” which has already hollowed out many civil liberties protections for the sake of security and has the potential to do much more. Harris’s record on the matter as a prosecutor thus deserves careful consideration.
Settling for Less
Arguably the most significant accomplishment on Harris’s record is her treatment of banks that were involved in widespread foreclosure fraud.
It is clear this will be one of the key selling points to any future Harris 2020 run, so it deserves special attention. She touted her 2011 mortgage settlement deal in her 2012 DNC speech, and at the 2016 California Democrats Convention, she was introduced as someone who was “very tough on the banks when they try to foreclose on working families.”
Harris’s actions on the issue in many ways serve as a microcosm of her broader political agenda. The foreclosure deal, while an impressive and landmark settlement, was also a half-measure that delivered far less to the public than it seems at first glance, ultimately failing to properly take the banks to task for their criminality.
Obviously, credit where credit is due: in September 2011, Harris pulled California out of nationwide mortgage settlement talks with the five biggest mortgage servicers, a gutsy move that won her praise from homeowner groups and involved defying Obama, her close ally. Harris did this after meeting personally with the banks’ representatives, who were offering California what she called“crumbs on the table” and reportedly asking to be let off the hook from legal action over any misconduct they had committed. Harris thought she could get Californians a better deal. She told the banks, “I am going to investigate everything.”
At the same time, Harris’s decision to pull out has to be understood in the context of the widespread activism that pressured her to do so.
At the time, Harris was under pressure from union leaders, other politicians, and housing rights activists. As one member of the progressive coalition of groups put it, “It wasn’t like she was some hard-charging AG that wanted to take on the banks” — rather, “it took a lot of work to get her where we needed her to be.” Harris withdrew the day after these groups sent her a letter, signed on by Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, a potential future rival, calling the deal“deeply flawed” and “outrageous.”
The deal Harris got for California was ultimately much better. It provided $18.4 billion in debt relief and $2 billion in other financial assistance, as well as incentives for relief to center on the hardest hit counties. This is particularly impressive when one considers the banks had originally only offered California, the state hardest hit by the housing crisis and fraud, $2-4 billion.
Nonetheless, the settlement was woefully inadequate. For one, while the $20 billion total sounds good, it was a fraction of what the banks would have had to pay to compensate for all of their malfeasance. For instance, investors had won $8.5 billion in a settlement with Bank of America over mortgage securities backed by faulty loans.
Secondly, the banks themselves paid very little — only around $5 billion, with most of the settlement involving the banks modifying loans owned by others, such as pension funds, who had nothing to do with the misconduct that necessitated the deal. In terms of direct financial relief, underwater homeowners — weighed down by average debt of close to $65,000 each — received around $1,500 to $2,000 each. One called it “a slap in the face for a lot of us.”
year later, only one-fifth of the aid went to first-mortgage principal forgiveness. And even at the end of this, just 84,102 California families had any mortgage debt forgiven — far short of the 250,000 originally predicted.
On top of this, under the deal, loans owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac didn’t qualify for the debt relief. Given they were the country’s biggest mortgage holders, this meant even fewer homeowners stood to benefit from the deal.
Harris explained that while the deal was imperfect, she was forced to make do as the clock was ticking. “Every day there are homeowners in California who will either receive relief so they can stay in their home, or will be in the foreclosure process and potentially lose their home,” she said. “And that always weighed heavily on my mind.” Rob McKenna, one of the lead negotiators on the settlement said that “at some point you have to decide that it’s more important to get relief to consumers sooner than to get more through the court.” Similarly, journalist David Dayen believed Harris had “played a bad hand relatively well,” and that prosecuting would have taken more time and a bigger coalition of prosecutors than she had at the time.
Still, there were numerous critics. Writing in the LA Times, Michael Hiltzik savaged the deal and what he called the “rosy self-congratulation” that followed it, particularly the new foreclosure standards it imposed, which he called a “big whoop.” “The provisions mostly require mortgage lenders and servicers to comply with what I would have thought was already the law, which prohibits, you know, criminal fraud,” he wrote.
“This settlement is yet another raw demonstration of who wields power in America,” wrote Susan Webber. “It adds insult to injury to see some try to depict it as a win for long suffering, still abused homeowners.” “There’s virtually no benefit to borrowers, and yet you give the banks credit for short sales and getting second liens wiped out — something they were going to have to do anyway,” complainedBruce Marks, founder of housing counseling group Neighborhood Assistance Corp. of America.
More importantly, ordinary homeowners who had been shafted by the banks remained angry. During Harris’s Senate campaign, her opponent was flanked by members of Occupy Fights Foreclosures, an outgrowth of Occupy LA, as she criticized Harris (however disingenuously) for not prosecuting a single top bank executive. The group had earlier written Harris a letter calling for her to implement a moratorium on foreclosures until she finished investigating fraud. Frustrated homeowners complained of being denied meetings with Harris over the span of years, and protested at the 2015 California Democrats State Convention.
There was no better symbol of Harris’s inability to hold the people behind the foreclosure fraud to account than her Mortgage Fraud Strike Force. Opened to much fanfare in 2011 and employing twenty-five Department of Justice lawyers and investigators with a budget of more than $2 million to go after foreclosure fraud, the strike force managed to prosecute just ten cases in three years, an East Bay Express investigation in 2014 found.
The paper found that not only had the strike force prosecuted less foreclosure fraud cases than many other states, but it had filed fewer lawsuits than attorneys general in smaller states with fewer victims, and even fewer than some county district attorneys. Yet California led the country in terms of such scam operations, with many thousands of complaints since 2010. One housing rights activist who had lost his home in a fraud called the strike force a “public relations effort.”
Harris has repeatedly said she was limited in what she could do. When a man at the 2016 California Democratic Party convention asked her, “How many bankers went to jail?” she said they did the best with what evidence there was. “I too, like most Americans, am frustrated. Clearly crimes occurred and people should go to jail,” she told the LA Times last year. “But we went where the evidence took us.”
This demonstrably wasn’t always the case, however. Earlier this year, the Intercept obtained a 2013 memo to Harris from prosecutors in the attorney general’s office saying they had “uncovered evidence suggestive of widespread misconduct” at OneWest Best, and urging Harris to “conduct a full investigation of a national bank’s misconduct and provide a public accounting of what happened.” Yet Harris never did. (Coincidentally, Harris was the only Democratic Senate candidate in 2016 to get a donation from Steven Mnuchin, OneWest’s former CEO).
One has to wonder whether there are other, similar memos out there, and how many.
“An Opportunity to Shine”
Harris’s many boosters in the media will tell you that none of this matters. Rather than doing their job of scrutinizing the record of a prospective presidential candidate, they argue, they and other journalists should simply keep quiet and “give her an opportunity to shine or not shine,” rather than “undercut her before she even begins.”
This is an obviously ludicrous idea, particularly coming from anyone who considers themselves a journalist. But beyond that, if Harris plans on making a run for president, which she has shown every intention of doing, anyone intending to play a role in selecting the Democratic candidate come 2020 — from middle-of-the-road liberals to leftists — should have a clear-eyed understanding of her record.
It’s undoubtable that there are many things in Harris’ history to be encouraged by, from her pursuit of corporate polluters and her implementation of policies to prevent recidivism in the past, to her more recent steadfast opposition to the Trump administration and her support of progressive legislation in the Senate.
But it helps no one to turn acknowledgement of her positives into a starry-eyed distortion of her record. Every politician — including Bernie Sanders — has some bad to go with the good on their record. But in Harris’ case, the bad has often directly undercut the good.
It should matter to us that Harris, the ardent criminal justice reformer, not only did little to enact this reform during her years as a prosecutor but backed harsh, punitive policies that undermined her own progressive rhetoric on the issue. It should matter that she at times did so needlessly, taking a harsher stance than her right-wing opponents. It should matter that she repeatedly attempted to keep an innocent man locked up in prison and attempted to defend a falsified confession.
And if she continues to sell herself to the public as a take-no-prisoners prosecutor who went after financial misdeeds in defense of the ordinary homeowner, then it should matter that her record on this was more underwhelming than even some county district attorneys.
These are not narrow, niche issues. In fact, many of them — criminal justice reform, drug legalization, foreclosure fraud — are ones that particularly affect communities of color. And despite her rhetoric now, Harris has often been either inactive or on the wrong side of them.
Harris has shown the capacity to be moved leftwards when pressured by activism. This is no small thing. But you can’t pressure Harris — or any other politician, for that matter — without having an understanding of her record beyond the fuzzy PR that Democratic loyalists are currently trying to substitute for actual political discussion. Perhaps Harris will end up the 2020 nominee. Then it’s all the more important we understand her inadequacies.
HER FATHER DISOWNED HER
She's nothing more than another Hillary with the same skin-tone as Obama.
And both of them are puppet frauds who have done nothing to benefit anyone other than Wall St & corporate America, while furthering the militarization of police force, removal of civil liberties.
The Human Costs Of Kamala Harris’ War On Truancy
The “progressive prosecutor” wanted to transform how California responded to students missing school. Parents like Cheree Peoples wound up paying the price.
By Molly Redden
03/27/2019 04:50 pm ET Updated 7 hours ago
On the morning of April 18, 2013, in the Los Angeles suburb of Buena Park, a throng of photographers positioned themselves on a street curb and watched as two police officers entered a squat townhouse. Minutes later, their cameras began clicking. The officers had re-emerged with a weary-looking woman in pajamas and handcuffs, and the photographers were jostling to capture her every step.
“You would swear I had killed somebody,” the woman, Cheree Peoples, said in a recent interview.
In fact, Peoples had been arrested for her daughter’s spotty school attendance record under a truancy law that then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris had personally championed in the state legislature. The law, enacted in January 2011, made it a criminal misdemeanor for parents to allow kids in kindergarten through eighth grade to miss more than 10 percent of school days without a valid excuse. Peoples’ 11-year-old daughter, Shayla, had missed 20 days so far that school year.
TOP PHOTO: Cheree Peoples outside of the apartment where she lives when her 17-year-old daughter, Shayla, is at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Peoples was arrested six years ago for Shayla’s repeated truancy despite ample evidence given to the Orange County school showing Shayla suffers from sickle cell anemia, which leaves her in constant pain and requires frequent hospitalization. (Credit: Tara Pixley for HuffPost)
ABOVE: Buena Park police officers Luis Garcia (left) and James Woo escort Peoples, 33, to their patrol car on April 18, 2013. She was handcuffed and under arrest.
The law was the capstone of Harris’ yearslong campaign to get “tough” on truancy, the term for when a child consistently misses school without a valid excuse. Harris’ involvement began in the mid-2000s, when the future senator and 2020 presidential candidate was the San Francisco district attorney. Harris had been disturbed to learn that a disproportionate number of the city’s homicide victims were high school dropouts, and that dropouts are more likely to become perpetrators or victims of crimes. Preventing truancy, she argued, was not just about the noble goal of ensuring every child’s education, but a matter of averting future criminals. So it only made sense for the city’s top law enforcement officer to get involved. Harris filed charges against a handful of San Francisco parents whose elementary school-aged children were consistently missing school.
A few years later, she persuaded the state legislature to adopt harsher penalties for truancy. Under the new law, the parent or guardian of a young, truant child could face a fine of $2,500 or more — or one year in jail. Harris pushed hard for the law as she was running for attorney general, and it passed just as she won the election.
“We are putting parents on notice,” Harris said at her 2011 inauguration. “If you fail in your responsibility to your kids, we are going to work to make sure you face the full force and consequences of the law.”
Orange County heeded her call with particular enthusiasm. On the morning Peoples was arrested, police arrested five other parents — including several in front of waiting news crews — as part of what one assistant district attorney painted as an effort to prevent children from “being criminals or joining a gang.” The district attorney described Peoples’ conduct in unsparing terms, telling local news outlets she had ignored the school’s numerous requests for meetings and multiple warnings that Shayla was truant.
“The defendant was offered counseling and parenting classes,” read a press release from the district attorney’s office. “The student was provided the opportunity for a mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orange County, a mentor at school [and] monthly meetings with law enforcement officers.” Peoples never responded to those offers, it claimed.
Peoples in handcuffs on April 18, 2013.
Peoples read all this several days later in a state of disbelief. She has a soft manner and voice and has dedicated most of her adult life to caring for Shayla — who has lived with sickle cell anemia, a serious genetic illness that causes her acute pain and requires frequent hospitalization and medical procedures, since birth.
Shayla frequently missed school because she was in too much pain to leave the house or was hospitalized for long-term care. Her school was aware of these circumstances; it had records on file from the regional children’s hospital explaining that Shayla’s condition would necessitate unpredictable absences and special educational accommodations. Peoples and the school had worked together to set up some of those accommodations, which are required under federal disability law. At the time of her arrest, Peoples claims she was fighting with the school to get it to agree to additional accommodations under an Individualized Education Plan, which she said the school had rejected.
“This is a young woman who spends a lot of her life in the hospital,” Peoples said. “How is it that she’s giving off the impression of being a gang member? … Why are they coming after me?”
Peoples was caught up in the hugely complex forces Harris and her tough-on-truancy stance unleashed more than a decade ago.
Harris has since replaced her punitive stance with the message that parents of truant children need help, not scare tactics. It’s a shift that happened roughly in step with voters’ waning tolerance for using the criminal justice system to address complicated social problems and Harris’ own preparations to seek higher office. In the memoir she released shortly before announcing her candidacy for president, Harris described her work on truancy as “trying to support parents, not punish them.”
Her evolution also supports the story she’s telling voters on the 2020 campaign trail: that she was trying to change the system from within in a way that is “consistent with progressive values.” She has packaged herself as part of a new generation of “progressive prosecutors” who used the office to achieve transformational change.
TARA PIXLEY FOR HUFFPOST
Peoples massages Shayla, who is being treated for sickle cell anemia at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, on March 10.
Yet the penalties she once championed for truancy and the way she originally thought about the issue are foundational to how California handles truancy today. Peoples’ arrest wasn’t a freak occurrence ― it was the inevitable outcome of Harris’ campaign to fuse the problem of truancy with the apparatus of law enforcement. And Peoples is far from an outlier. There are still hundreds of families across California entering the criminal justice system under the aegis of Harris’ law.
“I think it was a good thing that she shined a light on [truancy],” Jeff Adachi, who served as San Francisco’s chief public defender from January 2003 until his death on Feb. 22, told HuffPost in February. “There is a correlation between children who fail at school and what happens later in life. [But] the idea of locking parents up, or citing them with a crime because they’re not taking their children to school — it doesn’t address the root of the problem.”
Adachi said Harris’ record on truancy exemplified why he was always skeptical of the notion of a progressive prosecutor.
“That’s the common narrative, that you have a person who comes in and says, ‘I can change the system by becoming the system,’” he said in a January interview with public radio station KQED. “You can have some influence. But it’s a system because the people in power act according to the design. And if you’re a prosecutor, your job is to charge people with crimes.”
‘A Time Bomb’
Harris is hardly the first person to argue truancy should carry the possibility of jail time. Virtually every state has compulsory attendance laws and a long history of incarcerating parents — and even children — who fail to comply. A single county in Pennsylvania jailed more than 1,600 parents between 2000 and 2015 for their failure to pay truancy-related fines.
California law has made it possible to prosecute parents of truant children since at least 1977. That year, the state defined a truant as a student who was more than 30 minutes late to school three times, or who had missed three days of school, without a valid excuse; a truant’s parents could be fined $100 on their first conviction. Truancy wasn’t technically a jailable offense at the time, but prosecutors who wanted to see jail time often charged parents with the crime of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”
Despite being the focus of so much enforcement, the question of what causes children to miss school wasn’t the subject of much scholarship until about 10 years ago.
Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that studies and promotes best practices for reducing school absence, walked me through some of the emerging research, much of which is no surprise: Regular school attendance is vital to almost every aspect of a child’s future. Young children who miss too much school are less likely to develop basic social and academic skills as a consequence, and they are more likely to fall behind in class and drop out of school as they grow older. The tipping point for when the risk sets in is around 10 percent of missed instructional time. And the negative effects of missing school are more pronounced for children in lower-income families.
Researchers have identified some common reasons for school absences including barriers outside the school, such as a chronic illness, a lack of housing or not having a safe path to school; a negative school experience, such as a harsh or biased learning atmosphere; a lack of engagement because of something like high teacher turnover; or a lack of understanding, on the part of parents, of the risks of missing too much school.
Other new research has called the law-and-order approach into question. The evidence increasingly shows that pure punishment is less effective than prevention. Schools can prevent many instances of truancy by making parents aware of the associated academic risks and by identifying and fixing the systemic barriers to attendance, such as bullying, unreliable transit or safety issues.
There has been less research into the best methods of intervention, although it generally supports positive, personalized outreach. And there has been very little research into the appropriate role of law enforcement. According to what does exist, law enforcement is only effective when combined with earnest prevention efforts and outreach.
“A punitive legal approach, I just haven’t seen evidence that shows that works,” Chang said.
New research also suggests that “truancy” is an arbitrary metric. The term refers to unexcused absences, but California gives individual schools substantial flexibility to determine what constitutes a valid excuse. (Certain reasons, like illnesses and religious observances, are always valid by law.) As a measure of academic risk, it makes more sense for schools to track absences, since ultimately what matters is the amount of school a child misses and not the reason why.
“Truancy” is more like a measure of blame, and blame is subject to all sorts of biases. It’s not clear if students of color are more likely to have their absences deemed “unexcused” than white students who miss school for the same reasons. But we do know that black and Native American students, nationally, make up a disproportionate share of truant students.
BETHANY MOLLENKOF/LOS ANGELES TIMES/GETTY IMAGES
Then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris discusses the first statewide statistics on the elementary school truancy crisis during a symposium featuring officials in law enforcement, education and public policy on Sept. 30, 2013, in Los Angeles.
What jumped out to Harris was the connection between truancy in early childhood and devastating outcomes later in life. “Ignoring truant children is like tiptoeing over the sizzling fuse on a time bomb,” she wrote in her first book, Smart On Crime, in 2009.
As district attorney, she had her office send letters to every household with a child in public school explaining that truancy was a crime — and one she was prepared to prosecute. Most schools already had a policy of calling or meeting with parents whose children missed too much class, and school officials began referencing her threats in their phone calls. Harris assigned county prosecutors to attend those meetings and “look as stern as they could,” she wrote.
Community activists at the time found Harris’ threats shocking and “crude.” They predicted the hammer would come down hardest on the most vulnerable families and make their circumstances worse.
But Harris admirers said her focus on truancy exemplified her itch to transcend the traditional role of a prosecutor.
“The thing about Kamala that I saw on every issue I worked with her on, she is always asking, ‘What are the root causes of the problem?‘” said Jill Habig, who oversaw juvenile justice issues for Harris’ office after she was elected attorney general. “She really rejected the notion that all a prosecutor should do is focus on charging people with crimes and putting people in jail.”
Harris wasn’t perturbed by the criticisms, either. She charged six parents with infractions in 2008, using a newly created truancy court that had special procedures. The judge deferred any punishments as long as families began to comply with the law. “The goal was not to get them into trouble but to find a way to exert enough pressure on them that they would change,” said David Kopperud, the longtime chair of California’s statewide student attendance review board.
What it ended up being, practically, is families and kids having to come to court to be told to utilize certain services in order to come to school. Which, from where I sit, is very much the job of the school district and not the job of the criminal court.a public defender
San Francisco’s truancy rate began to fall. In a speech she gave a few years later, Harris credited her tough approach, saying, “We threatened the parents of truants with prosecution, and truancy dropped 32 percent.”
What distinguished Harris’ approach wasn’t the process itself as much as who was involved, and when. She was using the same basic system — the school identifies a truant student; the school contacts the parents; the school, or a local attendance board, holds a meeting, if necessary; the school refers the problem to the district attorney, if necessary — that counties across California had been following for decades. Harris’ innovation was that school authorities and the district attorney would work in concert, articulating the threat of prosecution much earlier in the process and keeping school officials involved long after a case was transferred to court.
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“It was using the law to support what the school was doing, and vice versa,” Kopperud said. “And she had a lot of success.”
Harris was elected California attorney general in 2010, and she wasted no time in taking her model statewide. Her office began to spotlight the counties with the most dismal truancy rates and how many tens of thousands of dollars it cost them. (A school’s average daily attendance is part of the state’s education funding formula, so schools lose money when students are frequently absent.) She highlighted best practices and issued sweeping recommendations for raising attendance with language that was notably softer than what she used in public.
“Early intervention by law enforcement should be supportive, not punitive,” the first report read. She added muscle to local attendance review boards — in the truancy process, they sit above the individual school but below the county court — by requiring them to include a representative of the district attorney’s office, and, after a brief outcry, of the public defender.
But it was her first victory that attracted the most notice and outrage: In 2011, at Harris’ urging, California enacted its first-ever criminal penalties for parents of truant children. Previously, having a truant child was an infraction punishable by a small fine. Under the new law, parents of truant children could be charged with a criminal misdemeanor and face a fine of at least $2,000, or up to one year in jail. The law defined a child to be truant if he or she missed 10 percent or more of school days without a valid excuse and the school district has attempted a certain number of interventions. Just as in her San Francisco trial run, the law allowed the court to defer judgment if the parent agreed to a mediation period and turned things around.
MEDIANEWS GROUP/THE MERCURY NEWS VIA GETTY IMAGES VIA GETTY IMAGES
Harris, who was the attorney general for California at the time, talks with students at the East Oakland Pride Elementary School in Oakland on Sept. 4, 2014. She sponsored legislation to help local school districts and communities address California’s elementary school truancy crisis.
By now, many felt the San Francisco model had clear limitations. Parents were not being jailed or fined en masse as activists had initially feared. But to critics, the language Harris used to encourage a truancy crackdown and the system she reinvigorated were cementing the idea that parents always were the ultimate source of the problem.
Most of the families in truancy court were dealing with circumstances largely or entirely out of their control, said a public defender who represented parents in San Francisco’s truancy court for many years.That often included violence at school or a school’s failure to accommodate a chronic illness. If a family wasn’t responding to the school, it was usually because they were dealing with bigger crises having to do with poverty. Almost all of the parents under the microscope were black or Latino.
“What it ended up being, practically, is families and kids having to come to court to be told to utilize certain services in order to come to school,” said a public defender who asked not to be named because she continues to work in juvenile justice. “Which, from where I sit, is very much the job of the school district and not the job of the criminal court.”
The system was not set up to correct the more powerful forces arrayed against the parents. “Their idea was, you’re not going to school, and — whether or not what the school district is doing is sufficient to get you to school — we have this mechanism to cite you,” the public defender said.
I put some of these criticisms to Katy Miller, a prosecutor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s office who has worked on truancy issues since Harris’ time.
“I ask myself those same questions, and I think [Harris] did as well: At the end of the day, what is the solution in these cases where we feel like everything has been offered and the dynamic hasn’t changed?” she said. “Are we just going to let it be? It’s a hard question, I think we should be very parsimonious as prosecutors.” In San Francisco, Miller said, the district attorney only takes parents to court if their kids have missed 40, 60 or even 80 days of school.
Habig defended Harris, noting that as attorney general, Harris formed a new agency called the Bureau of Children’s Justice to investigate and solve systemic barriers to education; the idea was to hold the education system accountable, not just parents.
As attorney general, however, Harris had limited influence over whether local prosecutors carried out the spirit of her new law. Several counties that had always taken a punitive approach simply reserved the new penalties for the parents they saw as the worst of the worst. Each year, Kings County, in the Central Valley, charges hundreds of parents with infractions under California’s old laws; it has charged 19 misdemeanors under Harris’ law in the past four years, and at least two mothers have been sentenced to jail. In Tulare County, also in the Central Valley, there have been 14 cases, and they bring officials there a sense of pride. In a brochure from a 2016 student attendance conference, the county lauded its attendance supervisor as having “successfully submitted” three truancy cases the district attorney charged under Harris’ new law, on top of 500 cases being charged under California’s old laws.
Orange County, where Peoples was arrested, has charged a total of 22 parents under Harris’ law. The district attorney’s office, Shayla’s elementary school, and the Buena Park School District all declined to answer questions about Peoples’ case or how prosecution decisions are made. Tony Rackauckus, who served as the district attorney at the time of Peoples’ arrest and left office this January, alsodeclined to answer questions but said he was “extremely proud” of his offices’ anti-gang efforts, including truancy enforcement. (Almost all of the truancy prosecutions under Rackauckus occurred in the 18 months leading up to one of his re-election campaigns; it’s not clear if this is a coincidence.)
And San Francisco — Harris’ old district — hasn’t actually charged any parents under the new law. Prosecutors there haven’t found it necessary to be that punitive, Miller said.
The Bully Pulpit
Assessing Harris’ legacy is difficult. She wasn’t the only one pushing new policies around truancy, and crucially, she didn’t get everything she wanted. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D), citing a need to preserve local autonomy, blocked a measure that would have forced all 58 counties to follow the same basic truancy process and a bill to track the number of truancy prosecutions that occurred under Harris’ law. As a result, the state stilldoesn’t know how many parents have been arrested, arraigned or full-on prosecuted under Harris’ criminal truancy statute, Kopperud said.
In fact, for all its investment in addressing chronic absenteeism, California isn’t sure if class attendance has gone up or down over the past decade. The state can’t make a clean comparison because it has changed the way it collects data several times, Kopperud said.
But no one really doubts that Harris had a meaningful impact.
“She was able to use her office as a bully pulpit for the understanding that chronic absence and truancy were both major issues, to help people understand the scope and scale … and the value of taking a positive, problem-solving approach,” said Chang, the Attendance Works executive. That made a much bigger difference than adding new criminal penalties, she said.
What Harris says from that bully pulpit has changed over the years. When she was San Francisco’s district attorney, she talked about “getting tough on truancy” and called truancy “a parent issue” stemming from “neglect.” If her prosecutors happened to discover that the parents they were prosecuting faced difficult circumstances, she framed it as incidental to the larger problem of failed parenting.
“Along the way, we learned some things about the situations some of these families faced and found we could help,” she wrote in Smart On Crime. “For example, we met a mother with three children who was homeless and holding down two jobs trying to get her situation under control.” Harris’ office helped her find housing.
Ten years later, Harris would say that connecting parents to the appropriate resources was the whole point. (Her campaign declined an interview request.)
“[Critics] assume that my motivation was to lock up parents, when of course that was never the goal,” she wrote in her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold. “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.”
Her story had evolved enough that I was curious to see which version applies in California today. So in February I traveled to Humboldt County, in northern California, to observe a monthly session of the county’s student attendance court. Outside there was a historic downpour, but Judge Joyce Hinrich’s voice was upbeat as she told the damp crowd of parents and students that her court was about changing behavior, not punishment. She promised there wouldn’t be any fines or jail time as long as the student’s attendance improved.
The judge led the court in several rounds of applause for families whose attendance was getting better, but eventually it came time for new arraignments. A woman named Shannon, who was there with a pair of little boys in rain boots and large sweatshirts, spoke to me in the hall with a shaking voice after entering a not-guilty plea.
“I’m very disturbed to be here again,” she said, her voice trembling. Her sons are avoiding school because they are being viciously bullied — recently, she said, another boy kicked her younger son in the crotch so hard he couldn’t walk the next day — and this was her second misdemeanor charge in five months. She felt as though she was out of options.
Rory Kalin, the public defender representing several parents that day, has heard countless similar stories. Kalin feels about one-third of his clients haven’t done anything wrong; in the other two-thirds of cases, the parents have made missteps against the backdrop of a larger issue such as poverty, homelessness or trauma. Humboldt County covers 4,000 square miles of rugged forest and lacks reliable transportation. It is also home to many Native American families, for whom school often has a traumatic association — government-run education, historically, was a tool of forced assimilation.
Although Kalin supports the student attendance court and says everyone is working in good faith, “there are these overarching issues that this court can’t address,” he said. “To hold a parent responsible for that is fundamentally unfair.”
School officials are deeply sensitive to these broader problems. For every Humboldt County parent facing prosecution — there were 35 misdemeanors charged in the 2017-18 school year, the county said — there are scores who worked with the schools to reach a solution before things escalated. Gillian Wadsworth, a licensed clinical social worker with the county education department, tries to help every parent avoid court by connecting them to free or low-cost services such as transportation, counseling, medical care, substance abuse treatment or temporary shelter.
When law enforcement takes the wheel, it tends to be because the family — often for complicated and sympathetic reasons — isn’t responsive and the school finds itself in a bind. Shannon hasn’t reached out to Wadsworth, she noted, and her phone number is disconnected.“The law is pretty clear,” Wadsworth said. “When the law is broken … right now the system that exists and can intervene is the criminal court.”
TARA PIXLEY FOR HUFFPOST
Peoples outside of the apartment where she lives when Shayla is in the hospital.
And yet not everyone is subject to the same system. State-run classrooms for incarcerated youth have posted some of the highest truancy rates in California, often without consequence. The state’s private schools, which enroll an estimated 647,000 students, aren’t legally required to participate in this system, Habig confirmed, meaning parents who can afford private school are functionally exempt from truancy prosecutions.
Wadsworth understands these inequalities on a personal level. Her daughter, who is in high school, has a serious medical issue and at times has had to miss 20 percent of the school year. Wadsworth has never been in the kind of trouble that would land her in truancy court, in part because she knows “how to work the bureaucracy,” as she puts it. “My family has enough resources and connections and the skill base to make sure the school is happy with why it is that she’s absent and prevent any large-scale intervention in my life,” she said.
The families present in Hinrich’s court the day I visited have much more complicated lives. They hadn’t been arrested and perp-walked, and it’s unlikely any of them will wind up paying fines or serving jail time — Kalin, the public defender, could only recall one or two cases ending in formal punishment. But for many there will be a lasting sense of stigma, Kalin said.
For all his and Hinrich and Wadsworth’s efforts, there was no mistaking the place where they determined parents’ fates as anything other than a criminal court. An armed bailiff scolded people for having their phones out. “DO NOT COMMUNICATE WITH THE PRISONERS,” signs on the walls warned visitors.
As the last of the families trickled out, I exited to the hallway to find Martin Morris, an assistant district attorney.
“I hope you enjoyed what you saw today,” he said as he put on his winter coat. “It works for some and we’re happy with that.”
‘Living The Worst Nightmare’
Peoples’ case trudged through the judicial system for two years. She had dozens of court dates, at least one every month, and at times it seemed as if the entire district attorney’s office was involved. Her case was passed among eight different prosecutors, including a recent transfer from the homicide squad.
When she was with Shayla, she tried to mirror her daughter’s sunny outlook.
“She is a joy,” she said. “Shayla is one of those kids you wish every kid was like.”
In private, though, she was fraying. During her ordeal, Peoples kept an on-and-off video diary in which she appeared haggard and anxious. “It’s hard on the body, it’s hard on the mind,” she said softly in one entry. “Right now, I am living the worst nightmare that any mother could possibly understand and go through.”
But Peoples held fast to her not-guilty plea. She refused to agree to anything that didn’t amount to a total exoneration. She especially balked when the prosecution offered not to pursue the charges if she took parenting classes, thinking, what parenting classes could cure sickle cell? On Aug. 12, 2015, the charges were finally dismissed.
TARA PIXLEY FOR HUFFPOST
Peoples and Shayla.
Peoples does, in fact, struggle with the kinds of issues that the truancy process can supposedly bring to light and resolve.
There is the all-encompassing fact of her daughter’s illness, which causes Shayla chronic pain and has required regular hospital stays, including multiple surgeries and countless blood transfusions. Peoples is also dealing with all of the consequences of dedicating herself so fully to her daughter’s care. She cannot realistically hold a full-time job. She has struggled to afford a place to live, faced eviction, and dealt with homelessness. On certain dates when the school alleges it was trying to meet with her, Peoples was recovering from the C-section birth of her son. In recent years, she has also become a part-time caretaker for her mother, who had a stroke.
Her recollection of how the school reacted to all of her challenges is very different than what the district attorney laid out. Instead of offering her help, Peoples said, the officials at Shayla’s elementary school tended to stonewall her or be suspicious. There were several times where it felt as though the school didn’t believe her when she said Shayla was not well enough to attend school, Peoples said. School officials were opaque when she asked if they needed more doctors’ notes, she claims. Peoples said she even asked for some of the resources that the district attorney would later claim she turned down — like a peer mentor for Shayla — and that the school wouldn’t communicate. The school began counting Shayla as absent without an excuse just a few days after they rejected one of Peoples’ requests for medical accommodations, Peoples said.
Today, Shayla is in high school. She’s been in the school choir and band. There are just as many days when she is in too much pain to go to school or can’t go because she is hospitalized. But Shayla’s new school works with Peoples to accommodate her needs, and as a result, Peoples’ legal troubles over truancy are behind her.
It wasn’t a victory as much as something Peoples survived. “I lost time with my son” and Shayla, she said. “I lost life. I lost me.”
Jessica Schulberg contributed reporting.
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