KLRU News Briefs: Truancy Starts Many on Pipeline to Prison, Texas Tribune Highlights House Budget Debate

Research shows young people who are involved in the court system are more likely to dropout and eventually enter the justice system. This is what people call the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and that is what our Saturday News Briefs examines. This story is part two of a story we brought you last weekend about the push to decriminalize truancy in Texas.

We spoke again to Mary Mergler, Director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project about their findings on this issue. She told us the pipeline’s most common victims are minority students.

“African-American and Latino students are sent to court disproportionate to their representation in the student body,” Mergler said. “And what we know about African-American and Latino students is that they are already at a greater risk for being pushed out of school by harsh disciplinary policies. So, our same groups of students who are already at risk, are also the ones being disproportionately sent to court for truancy which we know leads them down that school-to-prison pipeline.”

Special Education students are also over-represented at truancy court. Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston), who chairs the Senate’s Criminal Justice committee, authored one of many truancy bills this legislative session and has been working on this issue for years.

“From a financial standpoint you’re going to pay now or you’re going to pay later,” Senator Whitmire said. “We spend a lot of money on criminal justice. If we would spent a fraction of that on early intervention [and] mental health? I can’t emphasize that enough.”

Once the students are ordered to court for missing school, they and/or their parents face fines up to $500. Texas Appleseed reports 80% of students sent to court for truancy are low income and therefore often unable to pay those fines. In Travis County, Justice of the Peace Judge Yvonne Williams sees some of the poorest families in our region in her courtroom.

“On this side of town, though it’s changing, the average person I see is not able to afford these fines. So to say that I’m going to make you pay a fine is like saying, Okay, fine the blood in me. I’m a turnip. What are you going to do? So you still have that problem,” Williams said.  “You can’t pay the fine, so you go to jail. So that’s that whole pipeline. I start at school, they get me accustomed to going to court, and then now, I’m an adult, and what the heck? I’m going to prison because I did this or this. I didn’t finish school. So I’m in this underbelly, and it’s okay.”

Judge Williams tells families to plead No Contest, which enters the parent and child into an intervention program and the Class C Misdemeanor is removed from the child’s record.

“I am not going to be part of the clog that makes that happen. My court is never going to be part of that system that makes that happen. I refuse to cooperate,” Williams said.

Our Sunday piece comes from our partners at The Texas Tribune. Every Sunday from now until Sine Die on June 1, we’ll bring you legislative stories from the Tribune. This week’s Political Roundup from Multimedia Reporter Alana Rocha looks at the Texas House’s all-nighter spent debating their budget bill. Plus, a look at the early stages of Senator Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour Weekend, every Saturday and Sunday evening at 6:30pm. Our Saturday story is part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas. Lydia De La Garza, who is featured in the piece, is a member of our American Graduate Advisory Group.

Do you have an American Graduate story idea? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at CivicSummit@klru.org, post a comment, or tweet at us using #amgradtx.