Shared from the 3/12/2020 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Top law firms should help low-income defendants

Recently, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg announced a new program in which attorneys from top corporate law firms prosecute cases in the “high-volume” Justice of the Peace courts.

The criminal cases in these courts are low-level, Class C misdemeanor cases, such as citations for speeding or failing to signal. Ogg championed this program as a way for “some of Houston’s best new lawyers in courtrooms to get trial experience.” But this program will only exacerbate the inequity and power imbalance in the Harris County Justice of the Peace courts, where defendants who can’t afford lawyers are not provided one. For low-income people with no access to legal representation, these courts can be confusing and unforgiving poverty traps, perpetuating cycles of debt and offering no clear way out.

I am one of the few attorneys in all of Texas who provide free legal help to low-income people in their Class C cases. The vast majority of people are unrepresented. They appear alone in the courtrooms, outmatched by the prosecutors and judges who are intimately familiar with the workings of the legal system and the court’s practices. While many people should qualify for reduced fines or community service, less than 1 percent actually resolve their ticket this way because they are unrepresented. The rest either pay — by going on payment plans with additional fees, or scraping together money that would otherwise go to family necessities — or have a warrant issued for their arrest.

Thanks to Ogg’s new program, these same defendants will not only be facing the power of the government without legal representation, they’ll also be facing the resources of big law junior associates looking for “trial experience.”

The stakes for the people who are facing charges in these courts are very high. As an example, I represented a young single mother who could not afford her traffic tickets. Because she showed up late to court to try to settle the tickets, she also had a warrant out for her arrest. She was assigned another court date but she was unable to appear because she had just given birth to her daughter and could not secure childcare (or even fully recover from the birth). She ended up with another warrant and eventually “sat out” her tickets confined in jail.

The consequences of these supposedly low-stakes cases are only compounded by Harris County’s participation in the OmniBase Program, through which many people receive holds on their driver’s licenses if they miss acourt date or a payment. This traps them in a cycle of debt: they can’t get their license because of their tickets, but they keep getting tickets because they don’t have their license. Eventually, like my client, they end up with warrants and go to jail. Once people fall into this cycle, they can quickly lose their jobs along with any hope of being able to pay off their tickets and get back on their feet.

If resources are going to be poured into the Harris County Justice of the Peace courts by corporate law firms, they should go to advocate on behalf of people like my client, not to add to the already Goliath power of the prosecutor.

Recent years have brought considerable reforms to the criminal justice system in Harris County, but the Justice of the Peace courts have remained relatively untouched. The historic bail settlement does not apply to Class C ticket cases, which are punishable only by fine in theory.

Instead of creating a program that will exacerbate the imbalance of power in Harris County’s highest-volume courts, we should bring lawyers in to represent the low-income people trapped in this system. That is why this spring, we at the Texas Fair Defense Project are launching a pro bono initiative to train and provide attorneys to individuals who have received Class C citations that they cannot afford to pay.

We applaud the firms that have recognized the need to address the high volume in these courts but urge them to join our program instead. By participating in Texas Fair Defense Project’s new pro bono program, they can ensure that their service to their community lifts up marginalized groups rather than furthering the systems of power, control and punishment that are already suffocating those struggling to make ends meet in Harris County. By providing real defensive might to those who would otherwise be going it alone in these courts, practices and systems will change.

Dixon is the managing attorney for client services at the Texas Fair Defense Project. For more information on Texas Fair Defense Project's pro bono initiative, including how to participate, contact Dixon at

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