Texas decriminalizes truancy, adds appointment of counsel provision

Key_development Question_mark

06/18/2015, Legislation, Truancy - Petition Against Child

In 2015, a new law went into effect that decriminalized truancy (Texas was only one of two states that made a truancy a crime). The bill was bolstered by a report from Texas Appleseed analyzing the problems with the Texas truancy law.  Among other things, the law noted that


[I]ndigent children who go to juvenile courts are entitled to appointed counsel, whereas children sent to the JP and municipal courts are not appointed counsel. More often than not, in JP and municipal courts, children are faced with having to appear, plead, present defenses, and advocate for themselves without any legal representation, and often with little to no review of the rights guaranteed to them, what the pleas mean, and the consequences associated with each. This is an especially difficult process for children with special education needs, who represent 1 out of every 8 FTAS cases filed … These children are responsible for making their own decisions about how to plead and how to defend themselves in court, without court-appointed counsel. Courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have repeatedly recognized that assistance of counsel is especially important for children, as they are particularly vulnerable to the complicated and coercive nature of the criminal justice process. Yet, in JP and municipal courts, children go unrepresented by counsel unless they hire their own.


Under the new law, children can only be subjected to non-fine/jail remedies at first, rather than a Class C misdemeanor, and parents charged with contributing to truancy are now subject to fines rather than a Class C misdemeanor. The bill also adds required truancy prevention measures, such as creation of behavior improvement plans, community service, counseling, mentoring, or a teen court program. And it prevents referral of a child to truancy court if certain reasons (homelessness, pregnancy, foster care, or employment) are responsible for the truancy.  Aa child subsequently found in contempt of a truancy court order can only be fined $100, or alternatively, have their driver's license suspended; the child cannot be jailed in these truancy court proceedings until they have repeated instances that result in a referral to a juvenile court for a delinquency prosecution.


There is also a provision relating to appointment of counsel for these truancy court proceedings.  Tex. Fam. Code 65.059 now states:


(a) A child may be represented by an attorney in a case under this chapter. Representation by an attorney is not required.


(b) A child is not entitled to have an attorney appointed to represent the child, but the court may appoint an attorney if the court determines it is in the best interest of the child.

Appointment of Counsel: discretionary Qualified: yes