Senator Kamala Harris has received a considerable amount of fair and deserved criticism regarding her tenure as a “tough-on-crime” district attorney and attorney general in California, and it seems that the record of Senator Amy Klobuchar, another former prosecutor and 2020 contender, is receiving the same scrutiny.
The Daily Beast did a little digging into Klobuchar’s handling of school absences while she served as Hennepin County Attorney, and they found a record of treating truancy as a problem to be solved, at least in part, by the criminal legal system:
Even though truancy is not a crime in Minnesota, Klobuchar frequently called truancy a “gateway to crime” or even “the kindergarten of crime;” in a 2004 op-ed, she urged readers to call the police if they saw truant children out during the day.
Though Klobuchar pushed programs to bring services to truant students, she was unafraid to dangle the threat of court. “For most kids, having the court get involved in their lives is a powerful incentive to get back to school,” she wrote in an op-ed. “But the sanctions have to be real; kids catch on right away if all they face is a legal paper tiger.”
Chronically absent students would initially receive “interventions” that
ranged from supplying students with alarm clocks to scheduled meetings with students and parents with input from a counselor. But when this failed, the students would be “referred to the county attorney’s office”:
In the 1999-2000 school year, Klobuchar’s first on the job, her office received just over 1,300 truancy referrals from county school districts. In a 2003 report, the county attorney office stated that it received roughly 1,600 referrals annually.
Most referrals resulted in a student and their parent or guardian being required to appear in court. A 2003 report from Klobuchar’s office explained that a truant student and/or their parent could face a range of punishments. “For a student who is judged truant, sanctions can range from community service or work squad duty to fines or driver’s license suspension to, in rare cases, out-of-home placement,” read the paper.
Klobuchar backed a policy championed by then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) to make a student’s attendance record a factor in whether or not they receive a driver’s license. A September 2004 story from the AP reported that Klobuchar’s office used the policy to suspend or deny licenses to truants on 200 occasions that year.
And while some schools noticed a drop in truancy rates, overall the numbers were negligible: 8.5 percent of students in Minneapolis Public Schools were chronically absent in the 1999-2000 school year. By the 2005-2006 school year, just prior to Klobuchar’s election to the Senate, 7.5 precent of students were chronically absent.
A campaign spokesperson defended Klobuchar’s record to the Daily Beast, saying that the then-prosecutor “was committed to helping students stay in school” and that the truancy policies she developed were “never focused on punishing students or parents.”
Klobuchar now espouses support for criminal justice reform, and politicians views change. But much like Harris, who has also embraced criminal justice reform, Klobuchar’s record raises questions about how holistically they see that project and how far they’ve actually come since believing legal threats are the best solution to an issue like truancy.