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In 1999, Dr. Wylie Jordan, a Central Texas philanthropist and friend of ACF, suggested the creation of an award to honor individuals—and the nonprofits they serve—for exceptional volunteerism. Known as the Jordan Award, the distinction has evolved over the years and today recognizes one Central Texas nonprofit each year for innovative volunteer programing in the form of a $7,000 grant. Now in its 20th grant cycle, the Jordan Award has granted nearly $100,000 to organizations across Central Texas who rely on the time and talents of volunteers.

We’re pleased to announce Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP) as the 2020 recipient of the Jordan Award! TFDP fights to end the criminalization of poverty in Texas. Last year, TFDP launched the Freedom to Drive Pro Bono program, which matches attorney volunteers with individuals who need help navigating the court system to regain their license. A fairly straightforward goal, but one that is facing nearly insurmountable odds due to systemic barriers and the ongoing pandemic.

Director of Pro Bono Programs Jessica Johnson shares how volunteers are using their talents to fill a much-needed gap in legal assistance and representation in court.

The impossible choice

Not having a valid driver’s license creates a ripple effect impacting not only one’s freedom to drive, but also where they can live, their ability to find and/or keep a job, and even their ability to exercise their right to vote. Whether the individual has a hold placed on their license, invalidating it, or has had their physical license taken away—sometimes a person’s only form of photo ID—the outcome is “catastrophic for low-income Texans,” shares Johnson.

Prior to the onset of the pandemicsome could access alternative transportation, such as ridesharing, carpooling or public transportation. The continued widespread outbreak of COVID-19 in Central Texas means “none of those options are safe anymore.

“When folks have to get to work with little to no other options of safe transportation, they’re basically given an impossible choice; drive without a license or risk losing their job.”

The legal battle  

Many of the underlying reasons for a suspended license stem from unpaid traffic tickets. The original ticket is considered a fine-only offense, meaning that individual isn’t eligible for a court-appointed lawyer should they need it. However, failure to pay down the fine can lead to a warrant for that person’s arrest.

The need for volunteers 

Texas Fair Defense Project has a small but mighty team including seven full-time attorneys, including Jessica, three of which regularly take driver’s license restoration cases. Yet the caseload in Texas justifies the need for hundreds, if not thousands, of attorneys to support this work. In 2019, Texas municipal courts issued over 1.2 million warrants for unpaid tickets and it’s estimated that there are over a million people in Texas with holds on their licenses.

The Freedom to Drive Pro Bono program exists to connect the skilled professionals in our community to the clients who need them most.

“It can be intimidating for first-time volunteers,” admits Johnson. “Most of the attorneys that work with us have never taken a driver’s license restoration case before and most are actually civil attorneys with no experience navigating criminal courts.”

Despite these challenges, TFDP developed robust and intentional resources for volunteers to help them feel more confident about taking on these cases.

“Because our volunteers are so important to our mission and have such an enormous impact in helping our clients, we want to make sure they’re having a good experience. Through this work, we want them to add additional skills to their legal repertoire,” says Johnson. “If they feel supported, our hope is that they’ll  become effective advocates who continue to help our clients and also are able to articulate what the criminalization of poverty is and how that affects low-income Texans.”

How you can support Texas Fair Defense Project 

  • Stay connected. Sign-up for TFDP’s email newsletter and follow them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook 
  • Volunteer as a pro bono attorney or paralegal. Reach out to jjohnson@fairdefense.org for more details
  •  Have other super powers or passions like data analytics or social media? Reach out to the TFDP team by emailing kkisnorton@fairdefense.org to learn more about opportunities to get involved
  • If you or someone you know needs help with criminal records clearing, driver’s license restoration, probation fees and early termination, or has been denied a court appointed lawyer, please share www.fairdefense.org/resources/get-help or call (512) 637-5220
  • TFDP always welcomes donations. Donations will help with for the launch of TFDP’s dedicated client fund later this year, which will be used to pay for non-waivable legal fees; compensate clients for their work advocating in the Texas Legislature; and an artist-in-residence fellowship for an individual impacted by TFDP’s work.