ACLU Says Texas Teens Being Sent To Debtors' Prison

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas is challenging officials in Hidalgo County because teenagers are being jailed in an adult detention center for skipping school and not paying truancy fines, which, according to a class action lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, shouldn't be punishable by jail time.

In the lawsuit, the ACLU says the practice is unconstitutional and creates a "school to prison pipeline."

"Rather than increasing the likelihood that such students will complete school and graduate, excessive ticketing for failure to attend school, and aggressive enforcement of such tickets by courts, often drives students to drop out," the lawsuit states.

Eighteen-year-old Francisco De Luna is one of those students.

Starting when he was 13, De Luna racked up more than $10,000 in fines
for "failure to attend school." De Luna spent 18 days in jail in
January of this year.

"He would have remained in jail for over 100 days if the public defender had not noticed Francisco's case in a random review of jail logs and prepared a writ for his release," the lawsuit says.

Another student is 18-year-old Elisabeth Diaz, who was jailed for 18 days this year for $1,600 in unpaid fines -- three tickets for failure to attend school -- starting when she was 14. She is currently enrolled in high school and hopes to graduate in December.

According to the lawsuit, about 150 teens have served time under similar circumstances since January of 2009.

A representative from the Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office wasn't immediately available for comment on the lawsuit.

But the lawsuit specifically calls out the sheriff, county magistrates and Justices of the Peace, along with the county itself.

"The residents of Hidalgo County are among the poorest not just in Texas, but in the entire United States. Education rates in the county are similarly depressed," the lawsuit states. "While the legal claims challenge the county's consistent failure to conduct indigency examinations prior to the confinement of individuals...the broader context for these unconstitutional practices amplifies their impact on children and families in Hidalgo County."

ACLU attorneys involved in the case are conducting a conference call at 1 p.m., so check back later for updates.

Update: Gouri Bhat, a lawyer for the ACLU, said that some of the people being jailed are 20- or 21-year-old adults, who were ticketed years ago but have long left the school system.

"We really question the motive of that," Bhat said. "[Other than] making money for the county."

She added that the ACLU has found some anecdotal evidence from other counties in Texas of students or even parents being jailed for unpaid truancy fines, but nothing close to the amount of people being jailed for it in Hidalgo County.

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Paul Knight
Contact: Paul Knight