ACLU of Texas Sues Hidalgo County, Challenges ”Debtor’s Prison” for Truant Teens

Jul 27, 2010 Print This Post

Jailing Youth Who Are Unable to Pay Truancy Fines Violates Constitution, Perpetuates “School to Prison Pipeline”

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Jose Medina, Media Coordinator, ACLU of Texas, (512) 478-7300 x 103; jmedina@aclutx.org

AUSTIN – The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas has filed a federal class action lawsuit against Hidalgo County. The lawsuit asks a judge to enjoin practices that have improperly sent dozens – possibly hundreds – of the county’s low-income teens to jail for weeks at a time for fines related to school attendance violations they were unable to pay.

The lawsuit, which was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, McAllen Division, alleges that Hidalgo County magistrates fail to make indigency determinations before giving teens two options: pay or go to jail. This practice is contrary to Texas law and violates constitutional protections against being jailed because of one’s inability to pay court-assessed fines.

“Locking up low-income kids in what is functionally a debtor’s prison doesn’t just violate the law, it compounds the very problem that truancy laws are supposed to address,” said Gouri Bhat, Senior Staff Attorney. “Hidalgo County is pushing students who need help into the criminal justice system instead of back into school.”

Over the course of a months-long investigation during which dozens of records were reviewed, the ACLU of Texas found that teens who landed in jail for unpaid truancy fines were often first subjected to unnecessary ticketing by school police, and then deficient processing by the justice of the peace handling the vast majority of truancy prosecutions in Hidalgo County, Judge Mary Alice Palacios.

One of the Plaintiffs, Elizabeth Diaz, was jailed for 18 days in early 2010 because she and her mother could not afford to pay over $1600 in outstanding fines related to truancy tickets dating back to 2006. While she was in jail, Elizabeth missed taking her TAKS test and the charter school she was attending revoked her enrollment for being absent more than five days, thereby preventing her from graduating this August as she had hoped.

“The County’s unconstitutionally flawed practice of jailing defendants who are unable to pay fines is the final failure that sends teens like these Plaintiffs to jail,” noted Lisa Graybill, Legal Director for the ACLU of Texas. “This is a civil rights issue that extends far beyond the truancy context in Texas.”

Download a copy of the lawsuit (PDF).

Download background information for this case (PDF).

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