DALLAS, Texas — The US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on Tuesday, March 31, that they opened an investigation of Dallas County Truancy Court and Juvenile District Courts. The investigation is being conducted through its Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.
The investigation will focus on whether the courts provide constitutionally required due process to all children charged with the criminal offense of failure to attend school, according to a press release issued by the federal agency. This includes whether those protections apply to children whom the county charges with contempt. The investigation will also focus on whether the courts provide meaningful access to the judicial process for children with disabilities.
“Failure to attend school” is a criminal charge under Texas law that is the equivalent of the juvenile status offense of “truancy.” Based on a preliminary review, the DOJ believes that Dallas County prosecuted approximately 20,000 of these failure to attend school cases in 2014.
Recently, Breitbart Texas reported how Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins defended the practice of prosecuting children for truancy.
“The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate,” said Jenkins, according to a report in ProPublica. He added that the courts are staffed by attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice issues. They make use of agencies that work to solve the underlying issues behind the truancy of students.
It appears that Dallas County has turned the prosecution of child truants into a big business with more than $3 million in fines being collected in truancy courts. The Dallas courts put 110 students in jail or juvenile detention for truancy violations, according to the Breitbart Texas article.
Class, Not Court: Reconsidering Texas’ Criminalization of Truancy highlighted the alarming rate at which Texas prosecutes children for truancy – double the rate of all 49 other states. The 2015 study by non-partisan, legal advocacy organization Texas Appleseed cited more than 100,000 Texas kids were ticketed with juvenile Class C Misdemeanors for truancy just last year.
Truancy is defined as an unexcused absence for 10 or more days or parts of days in a six-month period. It can also be considered an unexcused absence for three or more days or parts of days in a four week period, as defined by Chapter 25 of the Texas Education Code (TEC).
Breitbart Texas reported that Class C Misdemeanors are lowest on the juvenile criminal charges chain. The courts still come with some significant penalties including a $500 fine, a conviction that can remain on a minor’s records and can land parents or legal guardians with a Contributing to Non-attendance, a violation of the TEC or the Family Code. There is also a $30 filing fee and legal procedure to expunge or erase the case from the record.
A primary focus of the DOJ investigation is to “identify and eliminate entryways into the school-to-prison pipeline,” according to the press release.
School-to-prison pipeline is a term that describes the policies and practices that criminalize youths’ behavior that sets them down a path that increases the likelihood of a number of negative consequences. These include contact with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
Acting US Attorney John Parker of the Northern District of Texas was quoted in the DOJ press release. He said,“Ensuring that the children of Dallas County appearing before these courts are afforded the full protections afforded them under our constitution is essential to increasing the public’s confidence in the juvenile justice system.”
The Dallas County investigation will include a comprehensive review of policies, procedures, court documents and statistical data, as well as interviews of individuals knowledgeable about the courts’ processes. It will be conducted under Section 14141 of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, to ensure civil rights for juveniles are present in the administration of juvenile justice, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
According to the DOJ, important reforms followed the DOJ’s 2012 investigation of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee.
Interestingly, this announcement coincided with the 84th Legislative session where Texas lawmakers debated Senate Bill 106 on April 1. Authored by Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston), this proposed piece of legislation is one of several being presented in Austin that seek to take the bite out of the decades old practice of truancy. The bill would downgrade truancy from criminal status to a civil offense and impose graduated fines for parents of truant minors.
Texas is one of only two states to still treat truancy as a crime. The other state is Wyoming.
Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.