Despite the bill's blessing from Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and a host of supporters, the debate over decriminalizing truancy was more contentious than the eventual, inevitable 6-0 vote might indicate. Not many people confront Chairman Whitmire as aggressively as some of the folks from local truancy programs who came to oppose the bill, and it's been a while since I've seen the chairman as fully in attack mode as when he confronted a Tarrant County vendor who'd been ginning up opposition.
And in truth, I could see why he was mad. There was a great deal of misinformation in the opposition testimony by folks who thought the bill would take away any leverage from the courts, which really wasn't the case. Reported the Austin Statesman's Julie Chang:
Senate Bill 106, filed by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, would make major overhauls to current truancy law, including referring students to a civil court that hears truancy cases rather than a criminal court. ...The predominant dynamic at the hearing involved bill critics exhorting all the wonderful things they do for the families of truant children and how grateful their charges are for the services they get as a result of being ticketed and fined. Chairman Whitmire would respond by insisting that they tell him what portion of the bill would prevent them from doing all those wonderful things - the answer, of course, was always "none," if they answered at all. Rather, their fear was decriminalization would take away a "hammer" to force families to comply with their dicta. They distrusted that Whitmire's civil fines would be taken as seriously. As this metaphor played out during the debate, the old saying kept arising in my head, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."
According to the Austin-based nonprofit advocacy group Texas Appleseed, 115,000 truancy cases were filed in adult criminal court in 2013 and Texas prosecutes more than twice the number of truancy cases as all other states combined. Most of those states send cases to civil juvenile courts.
Whitmire’s bill would offer students a behavior improvement plan in cases where they face expulsion by a court and would reduce fines to $100 for a first offense, which would increase $100 for subsequent offenses up to a maximum $500.
Regardless, all the weeping and gnashing of teeth by opponents amounted to a tempest in a teapot, with the vote's outcome predetermined before the meeting ever convened. The bill was voted out unanimously.
Significantly, Whitmire's bill comes as the US Justice Department announced an investigation this week into truancy and juvenile courts in Dallas County, reported the Dallas News' Robert Wilonsky:
The U.S. Department of Justice says in a release that its 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, including 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.” ...See a related News editorial. That development certainly bolsters the case for Whitmire's bill, which now heads to the full Senate.
According to the Justice Department, Dallas County “prosecuted approximately 20,000 failure to attend school cases in 2014.”
In a statement released Tuesday, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The Constitution’s guarantee of due process applies to every individual, regardless of age or disability. This investigation continues the Justice Department’s focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances. As the investigation moves forward, the Department of Justice will work to ensure that actions of Dallas County’s courts are appropriate; that our constitutional protections are respected; and that the children of Dallas County can receive the meaningful access to justice that all Americans deserve.”
In other juvenile justice news, the same committee yesterday approved a major reorganization of Texas' juvenile justice system, as reported by Mike Ward at the Houston Chronicle:
Under Senate Bill 1630, up to 80 percent of juvenile offenders who are now sent to state lockups could instead be held in local treatment programs - a move that could significantly downsize the state's long-troubled youth corrections system and save taxpayers perhaps as much as $40 million.
"This is the next huge step to keep the youth closer to their communities in programs that work, instead of state programs that have not," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the author of the measure. "We'll not only have better results, but this will save money."
Officials and justice experts testified during a public hearing the plan, if approved, would mark the most significant change in Texas' juvenile justice system in years - a change recommended seven years ago, when the number of youths in state lockups was cut by more than half in favor of local treatment and rehabilitation programs. ...
Whitmire said officials have identified 35 regional centers across Texas that could hold offenders under the new plan. More than 800 of the approximately 1,000 offenders currently in state lockups could be housed in those centers, meaning the state could sharply shrink its system.This proposal sounds a lot closer to the original expert recommendations the Lege received eight years ago in the wake of the TYC sex scandals.
Under the bill, juvenile court judges would be encouraged to send youths to those regional centers rather than state facilities - with the idea that by 2017, only those serving sentences for the most serious crimes still would go to state lockups.
Whitmire said Senate budget writers refocused the agency's two-year budget to fund more local rehabilitation and treatment programs and to hire more parole officers.
To go from nearly 5,000 in youth prisons a decade ago to fewer than 200, potentially, if this bill attains its stated goal, would be a remarkable achievement, particularly if juvenile crime continues to trend downward, as it did during all the while youth prison populations plummeted since 2007.