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Decriminalizing truancy

This is important.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

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.

Under current law, children as young as 12 who miss 10 or more days or parts of days in a 6-month period and their parents must appear in court, where they face a Class C misdemeanor charge and a fine up to $500. School districts can file truancy charges when a student misses at least three full or partial days in a four-week period.

Advocates told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that many truant students miss school because they are are pregnant, bullied or are the sole financial providers for their families. They said current law unfairly punishes them, labeling them a criminal at an early age.

“We have to find a way to encourage students and we’re finding that if you come through with a punitive manner it just doesn’t work,” said Yvonne Williams, a Travis County judge who deals with dozens of truancy cases a week.

Sen. Whitmire is acting on the tireless advocacy of Texas Appleseed, which has been banging the drum over the school-to-prison pipeline for several years. Decriminalizing truancy is at the top of their legislative agenda for this session. It’s great to see this move forward, especially (as Grits reported from the hearing) in the face of some heated but misleading opposition. Kudos to all for this, but let’s make sure it crosses the finish line.

Meanwhile, Sen. Whitmire has some other reforms on the burner as well.

Legislation that would take the biggest step in eight years to reform Texas’ juvenile-justice system by keeping more teen-aged offenders in community and regional treatment centers, rather than in a remote state lockup, was approved late Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

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.

Under the bill, youths serving time for so-called indeterminate sentences – most held for less-serious crimes and who remain in the program until they successfully complete it – would be sent to regional facilities, many of them operated by counties, instead of the state’s five high-security lockups that more resemble prisons than rehabilitation centers.

Tom Brooks, chief juvenile probation officer of Harris County, and his counterpart in Bexar County, Lynne Wilkerson, were among a long list of witnesses voicing support for the legislation, which has also been endorsed by officials of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department.

[…]

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.

“It currently costs about $140,000 a year to house a youth in a state facility, and it costs just $60,000 in a local or regional program – with much better outcomes,” Whitmire said.

I don’t see how anyone can argue with that. Again, I’m glad to see this moving, and I hope to see it go the distance.

There is one reform that won’t happen at this time, however.

Armed with research on the dangers 17-year-olds face in adult jails and prisons, children’s groups and criminal justice advocates have made the cause a top priority this session. Texans Care for Children convened a summit on the issue last fall, and a January report from a House committee has recommended changing the law.

Texas’ law, the committee notes, is out of step with both federal law and all but eight other states. The report notes research that says adolescent brains are still developing, which calls into question whether they should be held as culpable as adults, and suggests they might have a better chance at rehabilitation.

Sheriffs and jailers have supported the idea as well, in part because federal law already requires them to keep 17-year-olds out of “sight and sound” from older inmates, which is an expensive proposition. In practice, especially in smaller county facilities, 17-year-olds are confined alone instead. Juvenile court judges in Bexar and Harris counties have also signed on, editorial boards at the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News, Austin American-Statesman have all called for change this year.

With such a drumbeat of support, moving 17-year-olds into the juvenile justice system seems like just the sort of research-based, bipartisan idea that a reform-minded Legislature would embrace. On Wednesday afternoon, a House committee will hear a handful of bills to do so.

But for now at least, the proposal is likely headed nowhere in the Senate, where the most visible opposition has come from an unlikely source: Whitmire.

“I personally, philosophically, believe that if a 17-year-old commits a violent act, I see no reason to change that they wouldn’t be [treated] as an adult. I just think that a 17-year-old knows right from wrong,” Whitmire told the Observer. “I just am not of the opinion that it’s a broken system, and I’m not prepared to change the law to assist the sheriffs in the management of their jails.”

Well, we’ll have to disagree on that. I think the wind is blowing in the direction of less incarceration, and we should take advantage of any opportunity we can to pursue that. Maybe next session for this part of it.

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