A prominent Tennessee state senator involved in national juvenile justice reforms said he is troubled by a recent Center for Public Integrity report on children who’ve been prosecuted for truancy in his state, jailed and given permanent court records without the benefit of appointed legal counsel.
“They should be provided proper notice and counsel at the front end,” said state Sen. Mark Norris, a Republican from Collierville, near Memphis, who is the Tennessee Senate majority leader and was elected last fall to serve as chairman of the national Council of State Governments.
Norris said the findings in the Center’s Juvenile Injustice report “need to be aired,” and if need be, he would consider supporting a legislative solution.
The nonpartisan Council of State Governments provides staff research and policy recommendations to assist leaders in states struggling to shape solutions to problems. The council’s Justice Center has made documenting the negative impact of harsh school discipline — and keeping students out of the criminal justice system — a top priority in recent years.
On Tuesday, with Norris joining in, the influential council plans to unveil a comprehensive “consensus” report on school discipline recommendations.
The report includes ideas authors argue are practical and cost-effective alternatives to removing students from schools through suspension and expulsion. The report also cautions against unnecessary referrals of students to police and to courts for school-based infractions.
The council’s own research — including a longitudinal project tracking suspended Texas students over time — has found that “when students are removed from the classroom as a disciplinary measure, the odds increase dramatically that they will repeat a grade, drop out, or become involved in the juvenile justice system.” The report found that such actions disproportionately affect children of color and students with special needs.
Norris said he has similar concerns about truancy prosecutions that fail to address kids’ individual needs and problems and introduces them to the criminal justice system.
He said he’s been troubled to realize that kids get sent to court in the Memphis area for infractions like school dress code violations. “They still have the young boy there for the drooping drawers or sassing,” he said.
The Center’s Juvenile Injustice report featured a student whose records show she was jailed the first time she appeared in court in Tennessee’s Knox County and pleaded guilty to truancy without the benefit of a lawyer.
Although truancy is not a crime, the student — who was struggling with unrecognized special needs at school — was unaware the court gave her a delinquency record in connection with her truancy. Such a record remains on file unless youths later request such files be expunged.
Other truants interviewed by the Center said they were shackled and jailed in a Knox County juvenile detention center after they were accused of failing to follow court orders governing their behavior — including orders of mandatory drug testing and court-prescribed counseling programs, at the students’ own expense.
The U.S. Justice Department is looking into practices in Knox County. It is unclear how many truants have been jailed in the county — with or without representation — and how many might have permanent delinquency records that could surface to undermine future job and other applications.
Knox County volunteer lawyers say the Knox County Juvenile Court has rejected their offer to set up a project at the court to offer pro bono counsel to accused truants as they arrive with parents to hearings.
Truancy in most states is not a crime, and the accused minors do not benefit from the constitutional right to appointed counsel when they first enter court and before they plead guilty. Truancy is a status offense, like violating a curfew or running away, infractions that only minors can be accused of committing.
Federal law does not allow immediate jailing of status offenders if states wish to receive federal juvenile-justice grants, as Tennessee does. However, federal law does allow limited jailing of status offenders if judges impose court orders on these minors and they fail to obey them. The youths must first be afforded appointed attorneys, however, if courts are considering jailing the youths in response to their failure to follow orders.
Some parents and youths jailed in Knox County told the Center that they were not informed of that right. Lawyers in Knox County who later represented children who had been jailed said there was no proof in these emotionally troubled students’ files that they had been offered appointed attorneys before those jailings.
Norris, in response, said: “You have federal rules in place and apparently they’re being ignored.”
Norris also said he was troubled that accused truants don’t benefit from attorneys — if they can’t afford to hire one — when they are first summoned to court and asked to enter a plea.
“How can that plea be a knowing plea without representation — especially with a child?” Norris said.
In 2012, more than 9,600 accused truants were summoned to courts in Tennessee.
Nationally, in 2010, about 137,000 status offenders, about a third of them truants, were ordered into courts for their infractions, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
Some states require that truants or other status offenders receive representation automatically or early during their involvement in courts. In 2012, an attempt in Tennessee by establish that immediate right to counsel for truants failed without debate in the state legislature; a fiscal analysis found the proposal would require an additional half million dollars a year on top of juvenile indigent defense costs estimated at $2 million in 2010 out of $37 million overall for indigent defense.