Texas Governor Greg Abbott has signed into a law a bill which decriminalizes the act of missing school, which to date used to send about 100,000 teens per year at a criminal court, with some of them even facing jail time.
The law will exempt unexcused school absences from criminal prosecution, while also requiring schools to take preventive measures against an initial wave of absenteeism, and will go into effect starting with the 1st of September. Until now, students aged 12 or older could be sent to court if they amassed three unexcused school absences in four weeks, while the school could press failure to attend school charges for 10 in six months. Mischiefs were looking at fines up to $500 without court costs, and could be eligible to spend jail time if they did not pay the fines until they reached 17.
Lawmakers and those who support the reform state that criminal prosecution for truancy never reached its intended effect of making children attend classes, but had even adverse effects in sending absentees down a criminal spiral. It also put a heavy burden on poor households, as most truancy cases were related to financial and personal difficulties.
Texas was just one of the two U.S. states alongside Wyoming which criminally prosecuted truancy at adult criminal courts. In 2013 alone Texas courts had 115,000 scholarly absenteeism cases on their hands, twice the number of such cases judged in juvenile courts in most other states. Statistics pertaining to the Texas Office of Court Administration show that over $10 million were collected in fines and court costs from truancy charges in 2014 alone.
Nonprofit group Texas Appleseed claims that criminal prosecution of truancy has led to massive disproportions in the categories charged with it, with a bias towards poor, black, Hispanic and disabled students. The same group filed a 2012 complaint against special truancy courts in Dallas County which were responsible for prosecuting more than 36,000 of such cases alone, almost a third of all cases state-wide. This prompted an investigation from the US Justice Department into whether the prosecuted students received a fair process or any at all, which started in March this year.
The law is also going to retroactively remove truancy convictions, but it does not state the fate of pending student fines. Texas Judicial Council’s executive director David Slayton has declared that erasing such fines or not will be up to each individual court.
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