An article published in March by the Marshall Project and
The New Republic
explores the issues with treating truancy as a crime. In many states, parents are fined and sometimes jailed for letting their children miss school, even for verified medical reasons. This fails to address the problem and puts additional stress on the system, which is already so over burdened that it is unable to protect innocent people from being wrongly convicted.
Although there is no reliable data on the number of parents and children criminally punished for truancy, since 2000, more than 1,600 parents in Berks County, Pennsylvania have been put in jail for failing to pay truancy fines, according to the article. Last year a mother of eight died at the facility while serving a two-day sentence for unpaid truancy fines for her two teenage sons.
Pennsylvania’s truancy laws are particularly strict: more than three unexcused absences is considered a crime. Students and parents can be referred to court and fined $300 per additional unexcused absence, plus court costs.
In addition to fines and incarceration, parents often lose custody over truancy. Over 1,000 truant children and teenagers are placed in foster homes, group homes, or juvenile detention centers for missing school, according to the article. An additional 15,000 truant students are placed on juvenile probation, with probation violations such as breaking curfew or missing additional days of school leading to detention or out-of-home placement.
The article acknowledges that truancy is a problem but suggests that criminally penalizing students and parents does not help ameliorate the underlying causes of the absences. If anything, it drives the student straight into the criminal justice system and subjects the family to further stress and dysfunction. It also utilizes valuable resources that could be better used to address more pressing public safety issues.
Read the full Marshall Project article