No More "Debtor's Prison" for Truants in Hidalgo County, ACLU Says

We didn't really think this happened much anymore, but apparently Hidalgo County was in the habit of jailing school truants who couldn't pay the sometimes large fines they racked up.

It sounded -- to the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Texas -- like the debtor's prisons of old, so they sued to stop the practice.

And won. This week a federal judge ruled that the county "violated the plaintiffs' due process and equal protection rights by failing to determine their ability to pay fines before jailing them," as the ACLU of Texas put it.

"We have a crystal-clear ruling that Hidalgo County's conduct was unconstitutional," said Lisa Graybill, the group's legal director. "Locking up low-income kids in what is functionally a debtor's prison compounds the very problem that truancy laws are supposed to address by pushing students who need help into the criminal justice system instead of back into school where they belong."

Hidalgo County failed to determine whether truants were indigent when they ordered them to either pay their fines or go to jail.

The results were sometimes dramatic, the group said:

Plaintiff Elizabeth Diaz was jailed for 18 days in 2010 because she and her mother could not afford to pay more than $1,600 in outstanding fines related to truancy tickets dating back to 2006. While she was in jail, Elizabeth missed taking her state assessment test, known as TAKS, and the charter school she was attending revoked her enrollment for being absent more than five days, thereby preventing her from graduating. Another plaintiff, Francisco De Luna, was sentenced to more than 100 days in jail because he could not afford to pay more than $10,000 in school fines

"With this ruling, Hidalgo County is absolutely on notice that jailing individuals for unpaid fines without first providing an indigency determination will subject the county to liability," said Mark Whitburn, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. "Other counties with similarly unconstitutional practices should take notice as well."

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