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TribBlog: A Teen Debtor's Prison in Hidalgo?

The ACLU has sued Hidalgo County for jailing an estimated 150 impoverished youths for failure to pay fines racked up on school-related tickets. Such sentences amount to running a "debtor's prison" and violate the Constitution and Texas law, ACLU attorneys argue.

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Francisco De Luna got his first ticket at school just after his father died, when he was 13. "Failure to comply," it read. The boy "did not want to learn." He would rack up many more for such crimes as baggy-pants-wearing, teacher-cursing and general disobedience.

In 2007, his mother, Elisa De Luna anxiously signed a document agreeing to pay off one ticket per month, plus court costs, for the next 11 months — a bill that then amounted to between $257 and $383, quite a bit more than she could afford on her sub-$20,000 annual pay. After more court actions and missed payments, the debt climbed to more than $11,000 for 24 school-related offenses spanning five years, according to a lawsuit announced today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

When Francisco De Luna, now 18, got snared in a public intoxication charge, the whole pile of warrants came down on him. County Justice of the Peace Rosa Trevino tossed him in jail, prescribing a day's hard time for each $100 he owed and could not pay. ACLU lawyers claim Francisco De Luna — now one of the plaintiffs in the group's federal class action — was essentially sentenced to debtor's prison, which violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. The lawyers also claim it violates a Texas statute that requires courts to ensure a defendant, before being sentenced to jail for failure to pay, is not indigent and can't perform community service in lieu of fines. 

"It's a classic equal-protection case," said Gouri Bhat, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, referring to the Fourth Amendment clause. "The claim at issue is that (the court) consistently failed to ensure it didn't jail poor people because of their inability to pay." 

Hidalgo County declined comment in a written statement, citing the pending litigation. 

ACLU officials say they have heard anecdotal reports across Texas of young people jailed for failure to pay school-related fines — which in some school districts are issued by the thousands — but that the practice seems commonplace Hidalgo County, where an estimated 150 people between 17 and 21 years old have served time for unpaid fines, largely for minor school-related offenses. Issuing criminal citations for relatively mundane school misbehavior has drawn fire from advocates, who term the practice part of the "school-to-prison pipeline." Hidalgo's sentencing youths to extended jail time represents an extreme example, Gouri said in a conference call with reporters this afternoon. "We're not aware of any other county where it's happening to this degree," Gouri said.

The lawsuit claims Francisco De Luna served 18 days in a cell with 24 adult prisoners, an experience that "scared and disturbed" him. The only reason he got out so early, rather than serving the entire 132 days of his sentence, was that Hidalgo County public defender Jaime Gonzales noticed his case in a random review of jail logs, according to the suit. Gonzales filed a writ of habeas corpus to County Court at Law Judge Rudolfo Gonzales, who granted the writ freeing the teenager on Jan. 28.

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