Texas is set to decriminalize truancy after Gov. Greg Abbott signed legislation late Thursday making it a civil offense.
House Bill 2398, which will go into effect as the upcoming school year begins in Texas, effectively ends the practice of jailing students for skipping school. Critics say it disproportionately affects minority and poor students.
"Criminalizing unauthorized absences at school unnecessarily jeopardizes the futures of our students," Abbott said in a statement Friday, explaining he signed HB 2398 as part of his broader mission to boost the state's education system.
Before Thursday, it was somewhat uncertain Abbott would sign the bill, by Rep. James White, R-Woodville. Advocates were cautiously optimistic, though, as attorney general Abbott gained a reputation as a tough-on-crime Republican.
White said Friday that Abbott signaled support for decriminalization all along, but his office "wanted to make sure the school districts had tools to address chronic truancy." HB 2398 offers preventative measures districts can take to curb unexcused absences and suggests rehabilitative programs for habitual offenders. The next step, White added, is to work with the Texas Education Agency to establish a "baseline" for how districts put the bill's recommendations to use.
Criminal justice reformers had lined up in support of the bill, some hailing it as representative of a shift in law-and-order politics. Among the bill's backers was Right on Crime, a campaign of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin.
"You really see this is a nonpartisan issue," said Derek Cohen, a senior policy analyst for Right on Crime. "This is an issue about using our criminal justice system for the very goal it's intended for. Are we criminalizing behavior that's actually criminal?"
Before HB 2398, he added, Texas was "basically handling something that is a school discipline issue with the coercive arm of the state."