Decriminalizing Truancy

In the state of Texas, current truancy laws address habitual absenteeism by demanding court appearances, levying fines, and even arresting students over the age of 17 who can’t pay. While harsh, and virtually unavoidable for students with ten or more unexcused absence, these policies have had no effect on truancy rates and appear to unfairly target minorities and the poor. Dealing with truancy through standardized punitive measures makes it impossible for judges and school officials to address the actual issues behind truancy and work with students and families to get kids back in school. Instead, it labels kids as delinquents and punishes them by placing economic strains on them and their families.

Current Truancy Laws in Texas

Truancy laws in Texas operate around three rules. Compulsory school attendance requires children between the ages of 6 and 18 to attend school. Failure to attend is defined as ten or more unexcused absences within a six month period, or three consecutive days within a four week period. Parents are charged as criminally negligent if their kids don’t meet these requirements after a warning letter is issued. If punitive measures are taken, in addition to a 500 dollar fine, both parents and the student in question may be compelled to participate in a variety of programs and classes, and complete community service requirements. If Texas’ attendance requirements aren’t met, school districts are compelled to refer students and parents to court. Teachers and faculty are often unable to make an effort to resolve truancy problems informally.

Decriminalization Debate

In virtually every subject of criminological debate, the certainty of punishment does not effectively deter individuals of any age from breaking society’s laws, especially developing teenagers. Because of the immediacy of formal court involvement and the standardized punishments and negative stigma that comes with it, a large number of truants are charged without any of their specific problems being addressed. While it is generally agreed upon that some action must be taken, supporters of decriminalization argue that less formal measures will benefit students and families more. Students who are truant because they need jobs to support their families are treated the same way that students who join gangs or use drugs are. In a system in which no socioeconomic factors are considered, everyone is a criminal by default and treated inappropriately. Statistics show that the current system disproportionately affects hispanics and blacks as a result.

Possible Decriminalization Effects

Decriminalization bills have the support of Texas lawmakers, including Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. Advocacy groups believe that treating truancy as a sociological problem rather than a criminal offense argue that a less uniform process will allow for better understanding for disadvantaged youths and give the system a chance to actually resolve issues keeping them out of school. Rather than punish families that are unable to fully support their children and monitor their activities, new policies could install counseling and support systems that address those student’s needs. Decriminalization advocates believe that better individual oversight will reduce recidivism rates and lower the number of truancy cases every year.