TFDP has a tremendous track record of securing meaningful improvements to the criminal justice system. TFDP has won victories for poor people accused of crimes before the U.S. Supreme Court, the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the Texas Legislature, and a number of state agencies.
Here are just a few of our accomplishments from the last ten years:
Securing the right to counsel through civil rights litigation:
In Rothgery v. Gillespie County, TFDP obtained a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court establishing that the right to counsel attaches when a defendant first appears before a magistrate after an arrest. With Rothgery, TFDP successfully challenged the practice, extremely common in Texas prior to this case, of significantly delaying appointment of counsel to defendants who are able to post bond.
In Heckman v. Williamson County, TFDP obtained a unanimous ruling from the Texas Supreme Court holding that criminal defendants can seek pretrial relief for systemic violations of the right to counsel via a civil rights class action, and are not limited to pursuing relief for those violations in individual, post-conviction appeals. As a result of this case, 3,000 more indigent defendants receive access to counsel in Williamson County each year.
Securing the right to counsel through legislation:
In 2013, TFDP proposed and helped secure passage of legislation that will prevent counties from assigning indigent defense cases to overloaded lawyers who are unable to provide effective representation to all of their clients. The legislation requires the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to conduct a study for the purpose of determining maximum allowable caseloads and to collect systematic data on attorney caseloads.
TFDP also was the primary force behind legislation that created procedures for uninterrupted representation of defendants seeking to appeal their convictions after guilty plea or trial, as well as legislation that both prohibited and created a remedy for common practices used to coerce defendants to enter uncounseled guilty pleas in the absence of a knowing and voluntary waiver of the right to counsel.
Improving the quality of criminal defense representation in Texas:
Working with the State Bar of Texas’s Committee for Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters, TFDP’s Executive Director was the lead editor of the Bar’s Performance Guidelines for Non-Capital Criminal Defense Representation. The guidelines promote best practices in defense representation and serve as a tool for educating other criminal justice stakeholders about the minimum requirements for effective representation.
Expanding the number of public defender offices in Texas:
TFDP has played a key role in the creation of new public defender offices in jurisdictions across the state. TFDP helped build public support for creation of a public defender office in Houston, and served on the study group that helped design the staffing and operations model for the new office before it opened its doors in late 2010. TFDP also was part of the strategic planning team for the statewide expansion of a public defender office for capital trial representation that began operations in West Texas in 2007, and TFDP’s Executive Director serves on that office’s Oversight Board.
Supporting new models for delivering quality representation to poor people accused of crimes:
Most counties in Texas use private lawyers working as independent contractors to provide indigent defense services. TFDP works with these counties to structure their assigned counsel systems in a manner that affords defense lawyers independence from the judiciary and has mechanisms to improve the quality of representation through caseload controls and improved training and supervision. TFDP helped the Texas Indigent Defense Commission draft a blueprint to help counties establish managed assigned counsel systems, and is on the advisory committee for a client choice pilot program in central Texas.
Helping low-income communities challenge injustices in Texas’s criminal courts:
TFDP collaborates with dozens of community organizations across the state. We support community members’ efforts to change the criminal justice system by developing know-your-rights materials and training individuals to overcome common barriers to access to counsel so they can obtain a court-appointed lawyer.