Home News Center Texas Member's Complaint Prompts Federal Investigation of Dallas County Courts

Texas Member's Complaint Prompts Federal Investigation of Dallas County Courts

April 9, 2015

school-to-prison-pipeline-Dallas-truancyOn March 31, 2015, the U. S. Department of Justice announced that it will investigate Dallas County’s juvenile and truancy courts, based on complaints filed by Texas Appleseed (an NJJN member). Texas Appleseed contends that Dallas County courts routinely operate in ways that violate young people’s constitutional rights, including failure to provide adequate counsel and failure to adequately accommodate disabilities.

“We found that a lot of the kids and parents were confused about their rights. For example, what are the differences between, say, a 'no contest' and a 'not guilty' plea?” said Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler. “A lot of kids thought they were pleading 'not guilty' when they plead 'no contest.' We also met a lot of kids who had a disability who were not being accommodated in the court setting,” Fowler said.

“You can imagine a fifteen-year-old with a significant mental health issue or learning disability that affects reading comprehension being asked to read and understand waiver forms and to enter a plea without counsel, and without the kind of explanation that would be needed for a student who didn't have a disability.”

While ensuring access to counsel would certainly afford students greater protection, Fowler explained, the problem with Dallas County’s truancy courts is broader than just that. Because truancy cases in Dallas County are prosecuted in criminal court, youth can be unnecessarily pulled into the justice system for truancy offenses that could much more effectively be dealt with by schools. 

“Based on our court watching, we saw some practices that we found alarming,” Fowler said. “The majority of kids end up pleading either guilty or no contest, in which case they’re required to come back for review hearings every 30 days. What we saw was if a kid missed a court date, a bench warrant would issue, and kids would be arrested at school for having missed court. So, ironically, a kid in a truancy case would be pulled out of school for having missed a court date for having missed school.”

“We hope the outcome of this investigation will be a process that is more respectful and protective of students’ constitutional rights,” Fowler said. “We also hope there’s an opportunity to ensure that the cases that shouldn’t get to court don’t get to court.”

Fowler noted that Texas Senator John Whitmire has proposed a bill (S.B. 106) this session that, if passed, would have truancy charges processed as civil rather than criminal cases, and includes prevention and intervention measures intended to keep truancy cases out of court to begin with.

<- Go Back