Justin Small

The Project

Justin (he/him/his) advocates on behalf of unhoused and justice-involved individuals in the Antelope Valley in tickets cases for “quality of life” offenses that criminalize homelessness.

The Antelope Valley is a remote desert community at the northeastern border of Los Angeles County and has seen explosive growth in its unhoused population since the onset of the pandemic. Aside from the dangerous weather conditions, the unhoused are subjected to discriminatory policing practices. By citing unhoused individuals for life-sustaining activities such as eating, sleeping, or merely sitting on the sidewalk, law enforcement agencies are effectively criminalizing being unhoused. Because there is no right to counsel in these cases, 9/10 ticket cases in California are litigated without representation. The fines and fees associated with these tickets can pose severe hardship to this population, and the use of fines and fees to police the unhoused distorts justice.

Justin’s work in the Antelope Valley before attending law school motivates his commitment to serving this community and advancing economic justice.

Fellowship Plans

During his Fellowship, Justin will represent Antelope Valley residents in ticket and citation cases and host ticket clinics to educate and assist with court-debt clearing strategies. He will also provide criminal record clearing relief services for eligible clients to assist clients in mitigating barriers to housing and employment.

Coming from a rural state like Vermont, I have seen firsthand the impact of legal-aid deserts. I’m passionate about serving the Antelope Valley and assisting the community to mitigate the hardships of court debt.

Justin Small /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Carly (she/her/hers) will provide systemic and individual legal advocacy to ensure that children and youth do not receive fines and fees as a result of school referrals to municipal and other local courts.

Nationally, schools refer students to municipal and other local courts for alleged violations of ordinances such as truancy, disorderly conduct, or disruption of school. These courts assess fines and fees that criminalize poverty and substantially harm students by burdening them with debt and collateral consequences; these burdens fall heaviest on Black and Brown families. In light of the devastating impact of the coronavirus epidemic, youth will be even more vulnerable to school-based charges, and families will have even less ability to pay. Little attention has been paid to these fines and fees for students; without public oversight and systemic reforms, courts will continue to issue these fines and fees.

Fellowship Plans

During her Fellowship, Carly will investigate the use of municipal and other local court fines and fees against youth and publicize information about how they impact youth in multiple jurisdictions. She will also provide direct representation to students facing these fines and create advocacy guides to support attorneys wanting to help youth in these proceedings. Additionally, she will work with local partners and impacted students and families to increase community awareness, design campaigns to end the imposition of fines and fees for school-based behavior, and, when appropriate, develop impact litigation.

Media

Equal Justice Works Fellow To Represent Youths Facing Court Fines

As a former teacher, I am inspired by the incredible potential of all youth. I decided to become a lawyer because I know too many youth are stifled by the legal and economic consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Carly Wasserman /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

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

The Project

Cody’s Fellowship promoted equal access to pretrial diversion for low-income people in Atlanta who were charged with crimes. His project created a campaign for fair and affordable diversion services that could be replicated elsewhere in Georgia and beyond.

In theory, pretrial diversion is a laudable effort to channel people accused of minor offenses out of the criminal system. In practice, it is often blatantly discriminatory, permitting people of means to buy their way out of criminal charges while excluding those unable to pay substantial diversion fees. To make matters worse, in Georgia, and in Atlanta in particular, those fees are pocketed by private companies that function with little to no oversight. To maximize profits, the companies charge exorbitant fees and avoid indigency findings. Instead of granting all who qualify a second chance, privatized diversion penalizes thousands of Atlantans for their poverty, leading disproportionately to conviction, incarceration, and life-long consequences for those without the means to afford it.

With this project, Cody returned to the Southern Center for Human Rights, where he interned while fighting for the rights of the accused and the incarcerated. Through his experience in Atlanta, Cody observed how contact with the criminal legal system falls heaviest on low-income Georgians, primarily people of color, and he became determined to elevate the voices and rights of these communities.

Fellowship Highlights

During his Fellowship, Cody:

  • Partnered with public defenders, community partners, and other criminal legal system stakeholders in over 10 judicial circuits to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Georgia’s pretrial diversion programs.
  • Utilized Georgia’s Open Records Act and litigation demand letters to obtain detailed documentation regarding the function and equity of pretrial diversion programs across the state.
  • Represented SCHR in community meetings discussing Georgians’ experience with different forms of criminalized poverty.
  • Advocated for numerous individuals facing criminal consequences such as prosecution and imprisonment merely because they are experiencing poverty.
  • Gained expertise in ability-to-pay law in Georgia, using litigation and advocacy to obtain relief from substantial court debt for several clients.
  • Consulted several large jurisdictions through the process of reducing barriers to participation in their pretrial diversion programs, securing one jurisdiction’s commitment to eliminate program fees and expand eligibility.
  • Worked closely with stakeholders in another large jurisdiction to help create a progressive pretrial diversion program that will eventually serve as a model for the entire state.

Media

‘How do you make them pay?’: Locked up in Alabama for debt

Nobody should be punished because they are poor. I am grateful to my sponsor and Equal Justice Works for the opportunity to advance that common-sense principle.

Cody Cutting /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Ana advocated for people of color undergoing a cycle of poverty and debt due to government policies such as Chicago’s punitive vehicle impoundment practices, which impose excessive financial penalties and other barriers to success.

Chicago’s fine, fee, and vehicle impoundment practices harm low-income people and disparately impact Black and brown communities. The City charges excessive fines and fees for vehicles and parking. Those who cannot pay face escalating debts due to late penalties, the eventual seizure of their vehicles, and additional, compounding fees, hurting the ability of low-income people to maintain their livelihoods and provide for their families. This project used policy advocacy and impact litigation to help dismantle the City’s practices, which trap low-income people in a cycle of poverty, debt, and unemployment.

The criminalization of poverty through fines and fees is one the most important civil rights issues today—and one where advocates from diverse perspectives can support. As a first-generation immigrant and a person of color, Ana is committed to fighting for racial justice by challenging these practices.

Fellowship Highlights

During the two-year Fellowship, Ana has:

  • Collaborated on an amicus brief on Chicago’s vehicle impoundment practices filed by the ACLU of IL and a diverse array of organizations with the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Chicago v. Fulton
  • Furthered reform of Chicago’s vehicle impoundment program through policy research and drafting to support legislative advocacy for a municipal ordinance enacted by the Chicago City Council
  • As a member of the Transit Table coalition, advocated for suspension of certain Chicago booting, impoundment, ticketing, and collections practices from March to June 2020 due to the economic impact of the early COVID-19 pandemic on Chicagoans
  • As a member of the Fines and Fees Access Collaborative and the Transit Table coalition, advocated for reform of Chicago’s wheel tax license fees, ordinance violation fines, and payment plans
  • Advocated to pass the License to Work Act in Illinois, which ends suspensions for failure to pay

Next Steps

Ana will remain at her host organization through December 2021 while planning for next steps and hopes to remain in public interest.

Media

Recent John Marshall Law School Graduate Ana Torres Selected for Prestigious Equal Justice Works Fellowship