Home News Center YJI Fellow Alejandra Whitney-Smith Reimagines a System to Empower Young People

YJI Fellow Alejandra Whitney-Smith Reimagines a System to Empower Young People

March 15, 2022
Courtney M. McSwain

Photo of Alejandra Whitney Smith  

YJLI Profile Alejandra Whitney-Smith, She/Her 

What got you into youth justice reform?
I was in college, and I had no idea really what I wanted to do next. I was really impacted by the last five years with Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice who were all killed by some vestige of white supremacy, so I started really interrogating what I wanted to do to combat that. I decided to go to law school and almost all my experiences were focused on youth justice. That really deepened my interest, and then I came to Washington, D.C., and I worked in the public Defender service of DC and their juvenile services program. It was completely transformative for me to work on behalf of young people. I saw the devastating impact that incarceration has on young people and our communities. That experience solidified that I wanted to do this work and specifically to work with young people in D.C.  

Can you tell us about your advocacy project?  
I work for a nonprofit that represents young people ages 17 to 22 who are involved in the youth legal system and have disabilities. In D.C. specifically, over 90% of young people that are committed to the Juvenile Justice Agency have disabilities. The work that we do at my organization is what I call a holistic defense model. We're technically not defense attorneys, but we use rights and creative arguments to keep young people out of prisons and reduce jail time. A lot of people are unaware of the ways that education attorneys can influence criminal cases.  
My YJLI advocacy project is basically creating a model of representation that defense attorneys and special education attorneys can adopt to create a wrap-around holistic defense model for young people, specifically young people with disabilities. I’m working on creating a training module and then hopefully giving trainings to defense attorneys and special education attorneys about that partnership. 

Long term, I’m hoping the project can lead to a national hub where special education attorneys can share information about how to affect change and best arguments to use to keep kids out of prisons.  

What motivates you in this work? 
Young people motivate me – their imagination and creativity.  I truly believe that we can reimagine and reinvent a better system than we have right now, and I think our young people deserve better. I also want to empower young people to do the work on their own.  
What is your dream youth justice vision? 
Community and community care is something that I envision - funding communities so that they can wrap around young people, not funding systems that break down families and young people. [I see] eliminating youth prisons and limiting prisons generally. I see the community taking care of each other without the state and other agencies being paternalistic and involved in their lives and really investing in our communities, not just in a tokenizing way but in a real investment as well as divestment – those two must happen in tandem. 


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