Monday, April 19, 2010

Truancy Courts: Problem-Solving or Criminalization?

A weekend story on the Chron provides a peek into Oakland's truancy court, where parents are charged for their children's absences from school. The consequences include arrest and fines, but also stern lectures from the judge about the need to reduce truancy. This is not the first time we have noted this indirect mechanism for crime control: In San Francisco, Kamala Harris has often drawn attention to the link between truancy and crime, both in op-eds and in her book Smart on Crime. Harris' website boasts a 23% decline in truancy as a result of these policies (no statistics for recidivism reduction are offered, however).

These policies often raise important questions. Is there a connection between truancy and crime, and if so, is it causal or a mere correlation caused by something else? There are plenty of quantitative studies that point to the correlation, and some have included truancy in models of juvenile delinquency. Life-course criminologists, such as Sampson and Laub in their book Crime in the Making, argue that truancy is one of many "turning points" that direct one's life toward crime. It appears to be a trend that goes beyond U.S. borders: Joanne Baker, in a project by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, recognizes truancy as one of the "risk factors" for crime. But isn't the real problem lack of parental supervision, or social disorganization in the neighborhood?

Whatever the answer, it seems that attention to truancy also raises important concerns about criminalization. "Crime", after all, is what the legislator wants it to be, and over the years, the contours of parental neglect have modified and changed. Whether it is paternalism or governing through crime, it seems that focusing on early stages espouses a philosophy that addresses crime indirectly.

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