The U.S. Justice Department will investigate whether Dallas County's truancy and juvenile courts afford defendants due process.
Only Texas and Wyoming allow truancy cases to be sent to adult criminal court, and Texas filed 115,000 truancy reports in 2013, according to a review released earlier this month by the Texas Appleseed Foundation. That's more than twice as many as the rest of the United States combined. Students and parents charged with failure to attend school or contributing to nonattendance face fines of up to $500 and potential jail time. Dallas County prosecuted 29,000 truancy-related cases in 2013, according the Texas Appleseed Foundation. The Department of Justice said it believes the county prosecuted 20,000 cases in 2014.
"The Constitution's guarantee of due process applies to every individual, regardless of age or disability," U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. "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."
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A 2013 complaint to the Department of Justice from the Texas Appleseed Foundation claimed that Dallas County's truancy enforcement was confusing and arbitrary. Some teachers, the foundation said, were able to develop their own truancy policies. When cases did get to court, according to the foundation, evidence was often ignored. The complaint also claimed Dallas County applied truancy standards unfairly against pregnant students, a potential violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act, one of the laws the Justice Department says gives it the authority to investigate the county.
"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," said John Parker, the acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins responded to the Justice Department's announcement with a statement:
"Dallas County will cooperate fully with this civil investigation. We remain committed to giving every student their best chance at staying in school and graduating. My office is working collaboratively with reformers to improve the state laws that control the system, provide new protections for disabled students, make expunction of truancy records automatic, and lower fines and penalties."