Harjeen Zibari

  • Hosted by Texas Fair Defense Project
  • Sponsored by Lisa Foster and Alan Bersin
  • Service location Austin, Texas
  • Law school The University of Texas School of Law
  • Issue area Criminal Justice Reform
  • Fellowship class year 2020
  • Program Design Your Own Fellowship

The Project

Harjeen empowers, educates, and advocates for Texans impacted by a broken probation system through direct representation, all to end the poverty to mass incarceration pipeline.

Around 388,000 people are on probation in Texas, accounting for half of the state’s criminal legal system. There is no right to counsel during this probation stage, despite how much is at risk. If a person is too poor to pay their probation costs, which can easily run in the thousands of dollars, they will remain on probation for an extended period of time. This furthers the cycle of poverty through lingering payments, difficulty obtaining employment, limitations on relocation, and barriers to enrolling in higher education programs. A probation system that keeps a person entangled in the criminal legal system because they cannot pay a sum of money effectively criminalizes poverty by punishing people further for no reason other than their lack of resources.

Harjeen’s Kurdish heritage instilled in her a passion to work with and empower underserved populations. This project will provide her an opportunity to do just that, while effecting lasting change in Texas’s criminal legal system.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

During the first year of the Fellowship, Harjeen has:

  • Waived a total of $15,842.19 in probation-related costs, fines, and restitution.
  • Achieved the early termination of probation for 3 clients.
  • Testified before the Texas Legislature Corrections Committee in support of the Justice Reinvestment Bill, which partially aims to alleviate the financial burden of probation on low-income Texans.
  • Worked with a local coalition to stop the construction of an $80 million women’s jail in Travis County, Texas, which would have disparately impacted poor women of color and added to the state’s overwhelmingly carceral infrastructure.

Next Steps

In the next six months, Harjeen plans to:

  • Create toolkits to disseminate to local judges and practitioners to educate them on the current fines and fees laws in Texas. This will allow practitioners to better advocate for their clients, and to ensure judges do not assess fines and fees against low-income folks who are unable to pay.
  • Continue directly representing low-income individuals struggling with the costs of probation in Texas, and crafting mitigation materials to advocate for their early release from probation.
  • Host Know-Your-Rights trainings to educate the local community so they can advocate for themselves during the probation period.

Growing up in a Kurdish immigrant community, I witnessed firsthand how devastating grappling with the legal system can be, especially when someone does not have the finances or generational knowledge to succeed.

Harjeen Zibari /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

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