34, Senior Policy Manager at Partnership for Safety and Justice
2022 Prize Winner
Babak Zolfaghari-Azar’s criminal justice reform career began in the back of a Beaverton Police car when he was 17 years old. After being illegally pulled over and then booked into an adult jail for furnishing alcohol to minors (a charge that was thrown out in court), Zolfaghari-Azar—a straight-A student who had just graduated from Beaverton High School and was headed to Portland State University—spent 12 hours in an orange jumpsuit that would change the rest of his life.
Zolfaghari-Azar, now 34, was shivering cold, hungry and asking for assistance for a man in the booking area who was vomiting while police dismissed his concern and joked around.
“It’s this dehumanizing element that I keep coming back to,” Zolfaghari-Azar. “It’s one of the only things in my work that I lose sleep over.”
And it’s challenging work. As the senior policy manager at Partnership for Safety and Justice, Zolfaghari-Azar must be able to walk confidently in a wide variety of spaces: courthouses, lawyers’ offices, families’ living rooms, and policy meetings with legislators and lobbyists, to name a few. It’s one of his gifts, say his PSJ co-workers.
“Everyone is moved by his warm yet strong and committed presence,” says Shannon Wight, PSJ’s deputy director. “I learn from him regularly just by observing how he does his job and the impact he is able to have.”
A first-generation Iranian American, Zolfaghari-Azar and his family had no experience with the U.S. criminal justice system. He learned more in graduate school at PSU studying criminology and from yet another time he was illegally pulled over, this time in Tigard. (He mostly stays away from the westside suburbs, politely saying, “I don’t vibe well with Beaverton.”)
In 2019, PSJ helped pass Senate Bill 1008, which softened Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing law Measure 11 by making sure juvenile offenders aren’t automatically charged as adults and giving them a “second look” halfway through their sentences. Zolfaghari-Azar helps ensure that 1008 and other recent laws are implemented successfully. “That work is in fact harder,” Wight says, than passing the law in the first place.
Zolfaghari-Azar is grateful that PSJ encourages him to continue the direct-service work that he has done throughout his career. He serves as an advocate and support for about a half-dozen young men who are facing charges or are incarcerated, and their families.
“I don’t think of it as a job or a career,” he says. “It’s a moral responsibility; it’s why I’m here.”
In his free time, Zolfaghari-Azar hikes, cares for his dogs Daisy and Rumi, and coaches boys’ junior varsity basketball—first at Grant High School and now at West Linn. Working with teenagers on ball-handling skills or keeping good grades balances out his PSJ job.
“Coaching is so easy compared to talking to families where the kid is facing an attempted murder charge and 10 years in prison.” - Rachel Saslow
Skidmore Prizes are sponsored by Comcast