Working as intended, two state laws passed in 2013 have fueled a larger-than-anticipated 83 percent decline in the number of Texas schoolchildren prosecuted in adult court for infractions such as disrupting a classroom, court figures show.
Including other misdemeanor school-based offenses, almost 90,000 juvenile cases were kept out of adult court by the new laws, which were written to encourage schools to handle most behavior problems internally instead of relying on police or the courts, two Texas House committees were told Wednesday.
“We were expecting a drop. I don’t think we were expecting that significant a drop in the first year,” said David Slayton, director of the state Office of Court Administration.
The sharp decline in the number of juvenile prosecutions, publicized for the first time at Wednesday’s joint hearing of the House Corrections and Public Education committees, offered early evidence that the laws were working to reduce the number of children saddled with criminal records for relatively minor school offenses, legislators and criminal justice advocates said.
“We have seen major success as a result of the passage of these bills,” said Mary Schmid Mergler with Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy group.
“School discipline had increasingly moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse, and misbehavior that used to mean a trip to the principal’s office was landing children in court and resulting in criminal convictions,” she said.
The offenses targeted by the laws are prosecuted in municipal and justice of the peace courts — adult settings that lack protections found in juvenile court, such as appointed lawyers and confidentiality rules — and can result in criminal convictions that often make it difficult to find housing, enter college or join the military, Mergler said.
The laws, known as Senate Bills 393 and 1114, barred police officers from writing tickets for Class C misdemeanors that occur on school grounds, though traffic violations are exempt from the ban. Officers also cannot issue citations for school offenses such as causing disruptions in class or on a school bus.
Randy Hoyer, superintendent of the Lampasas school district, said the new laws removed a valuable tool to keep campuses safe and orderly.
Police, for example, can no longer cite students who bring tobacco, alcohol or drug paraphernalia to school, he said.
“If a student under 17 did (that) off school property, they could be issued a citation,” Hoyer said. “I am concerned that … students will begin to realize that there is no legal criminal consequence to these types of disruptive behavior — that it is better to be caught in school than on the streets.”
But Mergler said the new laws merely ban officers from writing tickets. Students can still be charged with a Class C misdemeanor in a sworn complaint that must include a written offense report, witness statements, a victim statement and — if applicable — a statement about lower-level responses taken before the school resorted to the criminal justice system.
The process was intended to be somewhat cumbersome to encourage more thoughtful use of the court system, Mergler said.
“What we really hope is that schools will actually embrace a new philosophy and not rely on courts so much to handle minor misbehavior,” she said.
According to numbers released Wednesday by the Office of Court Administration, over the past year, the new laws were responsible for:
• An 83 percent drop, to 1,365, in school violations, such as disrupting class, prosecuted in adult court.
• A 14 percent fall in juveniles charged with Class C misdemeanors.
• A 16 percent decline in truancy violations. Although the two new laws did not change how truancy is prosecuted, no other legal change can explain such a sudden decrease, Slayton told the committees.