August 2, 2022Summer 2022 Updates
Over the past few months, TFDP has made several additions to our team. Here are our new colleagues helping us fulfill our mission:
Yvonne London (she/her) - Yvonne M. London’s work includes providing direct representation and pro se assistance with clearing criminal records. Yvonne also is working with the Clean Slate Texas Coalition to advocate for policy changes that would increase access to criminal record clearing services in Texas. Yvonne earned her Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science from Rutgers University and her Doctor of Jurisprudence from Wayne State University.
Hans Maverick (he/him) - Hans is a long-time Texas resident and a recent graduate of Austin Community College with an Associate degree in Paralegal Studies. He joined TFDP in April 2022 as a Pro Bono Program Legal Assistant. In that role, he is helping expand TFDP's capacity to provide direct criminal legal services, including record clearing and driver’s license reinstatement, to low-income Texans.
Lulu Portillo (she/her) - Lulu Portillo is the Systems Navigator at TFDP. She joined the TFDP team in May 2022 to assist the Client Services team in providing additional advocacy and support to our clients with their non-legal issues. Previously, Lulu served 5.5 years as the Foster Youth Specialist of the Texas Foster Youth Justice Project. Before that, she was a Bilingual Survivor Advocate at the SAFE Alliance, working with survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Lulu is an alumnus of Saint Edward's University in Austin, Texas.
Sandra Organ Solís (she/her) - Sandra Organ, Houston Ballet's first Black ballerina, comes to TFDP with her background in non profit arts administration, as founding Artistic Executive Director of Earthen Vessels, a 501(c)3 dance ensemble that diversified audiences in Houston Tx. She has a B.A. in Human Services Administration from Antioch College, and lives in Hays County, as a Precinct chair for the Democratic Party, and a social movement activist.
Thanks to very generous support from Rebecca Webber and Shahin Amini, TFDP is proud to host several amazing interns this summer. Their work is integral to several of our current license recovery, record restoration, accountability, probation, and defense efforts.
PCs for People: Since starting, Systems Navigator Lulu Portillo has been identifying and connecting with former record clearing clients and helping them apply for a free laptop through the PCs for People program. To date, 20 of our clients have applied for a new PC through this program. In addition to getting a free computer, Lulu will also help them set up Indeed.com accounts so that they can begin job searching with their newly cleared records.
Probation Services: Over the past few months, Equal Justice Works Fellow Harjeen Zibari successfully waived an additional $8,907 in fines, fees, and restitution--for a total of $55,877.69 since the program’s launch in September 2020. She had 2 additional early termination requests granted, and has 8 more pending. In order to provide assistance to those outside of her service area, Harjeen is also compiling a self-help packet to guide individuals to request assistance with probation fees pro se.
Furthermore, Harjeen was elected to serve as a committee member for the State Bar of Texas’s Legal Services for the Poor in Criminal Matters (LSP) Committee. This will allow her to use her firsthand knowledge of client experiences to inform statewide indigent defense policies.
Criminal Record Clearing: Our new staff attorney, Yvonne London, has hit the ground running with criminal records and driver licenses cases. Yvonne is working alongside Pro Bono Director Sarah Mae Jennings with 63 clients on their record-clearing cases.
Indigent Defense: Staff Attorney Nathan Fennell is leading our indigent defense work and has participated in the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s legislative working group to advocate for policies that improve indigent defense systems throughout the state of Texas.
Client Advocacy Fellowship: Our new cohort of Advocacy Fellows have successfully completed orientation, a local advocacy training, and participated in a statewide conversation around our Justice Reinvestment legislation. In the next few weeks, we will be hosting a training on letter-writing and correspondence with elected officials, and engaging fellows in our legislative planning conversations. (Here's how you can support our client advocacy work!)
April 12, 2022Spring 2022 Updates
Success Stories: A pro bono attorney assisted a client who has had her license suspended for over a decade by handling 11 citations in 3 different jurisdictions, getting all but one ticket outright dismissed in the span of a little over 2 months. Courts waived $5,120.00 in fines and costs and our client is on her way to having a driver’s license for the first time in more than 10 years. See how you can support our pro bono program!
This quarter, Pro Bono Attorney John Zappia (Sidley Austin) closed out TFDP’s first criminal record clearing case through the Pro Bono Program! After successfully petitioning for Harris County expunction, John had this to say about the Pro Bono Program: “I enjoyed my time working with the Texas Fair Defense Project. All of the necessary information was provided in the record clearing roadmap and Sarah [Mae] always made herself available to answer questions. [...] TFDP was very responsive to my questions, provided clear directions and was a great organization to work with. [...] Please keep me informed of any future opportunities to work with your clients. Many of my colleagues are also interested in getting involved in pro bono matters after hearing about the success of [my client’s] case.”
Class C & Driver Licenses: Since the beginning of this year, TFDP's Managing Attorney of Client Services Karly Jo Dixon has had 58 cases dismissed for 48 clients. Among these clients, 18 have also fully recovered their ability to drive legally with over $22,000 of criminal legal debt waived or dismissed.
Probation Services: Equal Justice Works Fellow Harjeen Zibari has opened 5 new cases this quarter to address probation costs and early terminations. She successfully helped 1 client terminate their probation early, avoided probation extensions for 3, and waived an additional $12,383.00 in fines, fees, and restitution.
Record Restoration: Pro Bono Program Director Sarah Mae Jennings has closed out 20 cases this quarter. Sarah Mae also worked with Pro Bono Attorney Sam Bragg (Alston & Bird) to file an appellate brief with the Third Court of Appeals in Austin on behalf of a client who successfully petitioned for expunction at the trial court level.
As a part of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force, we recently helped to defeat the creation of a City Marshal’s Office, which would have resulted in a new law enforcement agency at our municipal courts. We are currently working with a diverse coalition to promote a city budget process that values community input and participation, and directs dollars to the services most needed by the community. See how you can support our collaborative work!
Ability to Pay Guidance: Harjeen Zibari also used her knowledge from direct representation to complete an Ability to Pay Guidance for current judges and practitioners. The Guidance covers the current statutory scheme surrounding fines and fees in criminal cases, as well as the mandatory ability to pay determination requirement that was implemented with the passage of SB 1373 . The State Bar Committee for Legal Services for the Poor in Criminal Matters (“LSP”) voted unanimously to adopt it, and now the Guidance awaits approval from the LSP’s supervisory board.
Trainings: Sarah Mae Jennings developed and presented two criminal record clearing CLE trainings this quarter: one on determining criminal record clearing eligibility and one on drafting criminal record clearing petitions. Sarah Mae and Karly Jo Dixon held three Class C ticket and Driver’s License Recovery CLE trainings in March and April for law firms and the TFDP Pro Bono Program--and the two also continue to facilitate a monthly Legal Aid Class C Huddle with practitioners across the state.
Advocacy Fellows: As part of our commitment to center the voices of directly impacted community members in our work, we have successfully launched a second cohort of Advocacy Fellows. Advocacy Fellows are provided stipends and advocacy training in exchange for their expertise and time spent on advocacy projects. This quarter, we were able to add 3 new Fellows and retained 3 Fellows from the year before who were eager to stay on and fight to end the criminalization of poverty in Texas. We are excited to co-learn, build and win with our advocacy fellows over the next two years. See how you can support our fellows!
March 22, 2021TFDP receives this year's Jordan Award
TFDP is proud to announce it is the recipient of this year's Jordan Award from Austin Community Foundation. Each year, ACF uses the Jordan Award to recognize one Central Texas nonprofit for innovative volunteer programing. ACF has given TFDP this $7,000 grant in recognition of our Freedom to Drive Pro Bono program.
Read ACF's statement to learn more about the Jordan Award and our pro bono program.
March 4, 2021Joint Letter to Harris County Criminal District Judges (UPDATE 3-12-21)
Read our joint letter to Harris County Criminal District Judges, co-signed by a dozen other organizations, calling on them to hold emergency jail release hearings and take swift and powerful action to significantly reduce the jail population. Following an unprecedented weather event in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, far more action is needed than what we currently see. This is why we are calling on these judges to reduce the population by at least 4,000 people next week.
UPDATE (March 12, 2021): The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has written a letter to Harris Couty judges supporting our demands. Read their statement on the need to drastically reduce the county's jail population immediately.
November 6, 2020Harris County Judges Accused of Favoritism
Judges in Harris County historically underutilize the Harris County Public Defender's Office, even though that office has been shown to do a better job than independent court-appointed lawyers and state law requires judges to give priority to assigning public defenders to represent cases when they have the capacity. TFDP filed disciplinary complaints against several District Court judges who consistently failed to appoint the Harris County Public Defender, instead funneling hundreds of thousands of public dollars to private lawyers on a per-case basis. TFDP will continue to monitor appointment rates in Harris County and elsewhere to ensure that judges are following the law.
June 10, 2020TFDP Files Open Records Lawsuit Against Presidio County Sheriff
TFDP filed suit against the Presidio County Sheriff over failure to comply with the Texas Public Information Act. The Sheriff refused to release basic information about who is housed in the Presidio County Jail, prompting TFDP to file suit for release of those records. Transparency is key to holding elected officials accountable and protecting the rights of the most marginalized.
May 28, 2020TFDP Wins Release for Over 50 People Detained on Abbott's Executive Order GA-13
On Thursday May 28, a Harris County judge granted a writ filed by TFDP challenging the constitutionality of Executive Order GA-13. Under GA-13, TFDP's client had been denied release on his earned good time and trustee credit, even though he contracted COVID-19 while working as a trustee for the Harris County Jail. TFDP continued to file writs and advocate for similarly situated people, and on June 17, 2020, the Harris County Sheriff released at least 47 additional people from the jail as the result of the original writ, for a total of at least 51 people.
January 23, 2020Austin Passes Resolution Limiting Marijuana Enforcement
TFDP advocated for the resolution, which stops the City of Austin's resources from being spent on testing THC levels for possession of marijuana cases. Because the Travis County District Attorney and County Attorney have stated that they will not prosecute cases without such testing, this resolution will effectively end prosecution of low-level marijuana cases in Austin. This resolution is an important step for racial equity in Austin. In 2018, black residents were over 15 times as likely to be cited by police for possession of marijuana as white residents.
November 15, 2019TFDP and Texas Appleseed Release New Report on Driver License Holds in Dallas
The report, Driven By Debt: Dallas, shows the devastating effect the OmniBase program has on low-income Dallas residents, who lose their ability to get their licenses if they cannot afford to pay fines and fees. The report also notes that "[w]hile Black individuals make up only about 25 percent of the Dallas population, almost 60 percent of OmniBase holds in Dallas Municipal Court were against Black individuals in 2017."
September 21, 2018Federal Court Grants Injunction Against Dallas County Cash Bail System
Attorneys from TFDP spent the days leading up to the preliminary injunction hearing inside the Dallas County Jail listening to the stories of people who were being held because they could not afford their money bail. In one case, we heard from a father whose family had to choose whether to pay rent and buy food or bail him out of jail.
August 27, 2018TFDP Clients Discuss License Suspensions
This discusses license suspensions and denials for unpaid fines, fees, and surcharges. Two of the people TFDP has assisted at Austin's License Reclamation Clinics discuss their experiences with the Driver Responsibility Program and the Failure to Appear/Pay program.
July 9, 2018Tennessee License Decision Has Implications for Texas
Read this joint blog post by TFDP's Emily Gerrick and Texas Appleseed's Mary Mergler on the landmark ruling from a federal district court in Tennessee that found the state's driver's license suspension program unconstitutional.
June 23, 2018TFDP Holds Driver's License Recovery Clinic with Austin Municipal Court and UT Law
Staff Attorney Karly Dixon said of the clinics: "We want people to drive their kids to school without fear, to be able to go to work, to have better jobs, and all of those things are possible with a valid driver's license."
June 5, 2018Austin Public Safety Commission Considers Repeal of Three Ordinances Criminalizing Homelessness
TFDP's staff attorney Emily Gerrick is featured this piece from the Austin Monitor talking about our work to end anti-homeless ordinances.
April 20, 2018Ending Austin's Criminalization of Homelessness
More from the on TFDP's advocacy to end the criminalization of homelessness in Austin as part of a coalition of activists.
April 14, 2018The Latest on the Harris County Bail Lawsuit
TFDP's Susanne Pringle discusses the litigation in the Reasonably Suspicious podcastfrom criminal justice policy blog Grits for Breakfast.
April 3, 2018TFDP calls for repeal of Austin ordinances criminalizing homelessness
TFPD's Annette Price spoke at the Tuesday Rally to End the Criminalization of Homelessness: "Don’t push the homeless people further into debt. This is doing a disservice to humanity."
February 27, 2018TFDP's Advocacy Helps Get Bad Judges off the Bench
The Austin American Statesman reports on a panel reviewing Austin municipal judges. TFDP staff attorney Emily Gerrick was involved in the review process. “You need judges who treat people with respect and are compassionate and make bail decisions based on whether someone was a threat, whether they are a flight risk and their ability to pay,” Gerrick said.
February 15, 2018Historic Victory from the 5th Circuit in Harris County Money Bail Case!
TFDP is thrilled that the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals largely upheld judge Rosenthal's ruling, reaffirming that Harris County's discriminatory money bail system is unconstitutional. As counties across Texas reconsider their own pretrial practices, we urge them to consider this historic decision that was handed down by one of the most conservative courts in the US. It is time to eliminate the two-tiered system of justice that detains the poor while allowing more affluent people to purchase their freedom.
February 13, 2018TFDP and Texas Civil Rights Project urge White Settlement City Council to hold Judge Accountable for Breaking Law
The Texas Fair Defense Project and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) are urging White Settlement City Council to hold the White Settlement Municipal Court Judge accountable for routinely breaking law and punishing people for being poor.
February 2, 2018TFDP Interim Director Susanne Pringle Talks Bail Reform on Texas Public Radio
TFDP's Susanne Pringle discusses bail reform and our recent litigation on today's episode of Texas Matters on Texas Public Radio.
January 29, 2018Dallas Morning News Goes In-Depth on Bail Reform
More on our lawsuit against Dallas County: an in-depth article about the injustice of their current bail system, and proposed reforms that could end unfair wealth-based pretrial detention.
January 22, 2018TFDP Files Suit Against Dallas County for Unfair Bail Practices
TFDP continues our fight against unfair, unconstitutional bail practices. We have filed suit against Dallas County with our partners Civil Rights Corp, ACLU-TX, and ACLU National.
November 17, 2017Austin Ordinance Passed to Help End Jail for Unpaid Tickets
TFDP and others have been working on this ordinance (Ordinance Language) for months, and we’re thrilled that the Austin City Council unanimously decided to pass it. Special thanks to Council Member Garza and her staff for championing this ordinance, which will help countless low-income Austinites take care of their tickets and escape a terrible cycle of debt and incarceration. Additional coverage at the Austin Chronicle.
November 14, 2017TFDP Client Kelly Unterburger Tells His Story in the Texas Tribune
TFDP helps low-income Texans like Kelly Unterburger, who are unfairly charged for the costs of their court-appointed attorneys. Big thanks to the Texas Tribune for covering the problem of unconstitutional attorney fees in this article.
October 9, 2017U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Hears Oral Arguments in Landmark Bail Reform Case
The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments last week on our landmark bail reform case. For more coverage of the case from the Houston Press, click here.
June 15, 2017Gov. Abbott Signs SB 1913 and HB 351 Into Law
TFDP has been working hard during the 2017 Legislative Session to help pass SB 1913 and HB 351, two nearly identical bills, into law. These bills will reform the way courts handle the collection of criminal fines and fees, and will encourage judges to work with people who can’t afford to pay instead of locking them in jail. Click here to read our fact sheet.
May 5, 2017Texas Senate Approves Bail Reform
Yesterday the Texas Senate approved Senator Whitmire's bail reform bill, a top TFDP priority.
April 29, 2017New York Times coverage of our win in federal court in our lawsuit again Harris County
New York Times coverage of our win in federal court in our lawsuit again Harris County. Thanks to co-counsel Civil Rights Corps and Susman Godfrey LLP! This is an exciting victory that could fundamentally change the way money-bail operates in Texas.
March 29, 2017Harris County Commissioners Debate TFDP’s Bail Reform Lawsuit
Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis took action by joining the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in filing an amicus brief in support of the bail bond lawsuit filed by TFDP, Civil Rights Corps, and Susman Godfrey LLP. The other commissioners were not happy, resulting in a debate at Tuesday’s Commissioners Court. is a long-time champion of criminal justice reform.
March 14, 2017TFDP in Texas Tribune on Debtors' Prisons Legislation
March 1, 2017Harris County Scrambles to Implement Reform in Response to TFDP Lawsuit
Under pressure from TFDP’s lawsuit, Harris County scrambles to implement reform. This is a step in the right direction, but doesn’t respond to the lawsuit’s core constitutional claim.
February 27, 2017TFDP & Appleseed Report on Debtor's Prisons in Texas Observer
This article covers upcoming legislative measures and TFDP's and Texas Appleseed's joint report.
December 29, 2016TFDP Files Second Lawsuit against Harris County
TFDP and our partners at Civil Rights Corps have filed another lawsuit against Harris County, this time for violating the constitutional right to have arresting officers put in writing and swear to the set of facts that are the reason for the arrest. There must be an official explanation for why someone is charged with a crime; TFDP is here to ensure that this right is a reality.
May 22, 2016Debtors' Prison Plaintiffs in Austin-American Statesman
Texas Fair Defense Project clients Valerie Gonzales and Karian Harris were featured on the front page of the Austin American-Statesman in a story about possible reforms coming to the Austin Municipal Court. TFDP is proud of Ms. Gonzales and Ms. Harris for their hard work on behalf of other Austinites whose lives have been impacted by Municipal Court fines, fees and court costs.
May 20, 2016TFDP Joins Equal Justice Under Law in Suit Against Harris County
The Texas Fair Defense Project joined Equal Justice Under Law and the law firm Susman Godfrey in their suit against Harris County, the Harris County Sheriff and Criminal Law Hearing Officers for unlawful bail practices on Friday, May 20, 2016. The lawsuit, O’Donnell v. Harris County, alleges that Harris County has an illegal practice of releasing individuals charged with low-level offenses based solely on their ability to pay a set monetary amount before trial, which discriminates against low-income people.