This lawyer and historian heads a nonprofit law firm that works to create economic opportunities and transform the justice system – while promoting equitable and just cities.
To ensure that our legal system is just and that Detroit’s communities of color are included in the city’s boom, Amanda Alexander says it’s not enough to defend against injustice. She says we must also go on the offensive. It’s Detroit Justice Center’s three-pronged approach: “defense, offense and dreaming.”
Alexander founded the nonprofit law firm in 2018 to work alongside communities toward economic opportunity, an equitable justice system, and a thriving and inclusive Detroit.
Around that time, Alexander says, “It was very clear that there were people who were being shut out of the future of the city, and that was really because they had been involved in the criminal legal system and were impacted by mass incarceration.”
We know those people – the ones for whom a mark on their record makes it difficult to get job or, if they are employed, a suspended driver’s license due to unpaid fees prevents them from getting to that job. Detroit Justice Center works in a number of ways, including providing legal services to help remove these barriers and others. They started Michigan’s first revolving bail fund, which has helped to bail hundreds of people out of the Wayne County Jail.
Their economic equity practice works closely with longstanding community organizers, providing legal support for land trusts, housing and worker cooperatives, along with small businesses led by returning citizens. “Last year, we helped organizations start three community land trusts, which means that they will be able to own this land together and decide how they want development to look in their neighborhood – and keep it affordable for generations to come,” Alexander says.
The third prong of their work is the Just Cities Lab. “For us, it’s really important to focus not just on what needs to end – in terms of mass incarceration or policing or jails – but what do we need to build out in order to create this safe and just city that we need?” It’s here that Detroit Justice Center engages with the community, especially youths, to center strategy and solution.
How can we start to shift funds away from jails and prisons and into the communities that need them, for an approach that’s proactive instead of only reactive? Through the Just Cities Lab, the center launched the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network, an ecosystem meant to support those dedicated to restorative justice work and help them to expand.
Alexander was born in Southfield and raised near Kalamazoo. “My family was impacted by incarceration growing up. So, I knew from a very early age what mass incarceration does to Black families. So many families are broken up because of a prison sentence.”
She went on to become a historian and a lawyer, earning a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard, her Ph.D. from Columbia and a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School. She’s lived in South Africa and in New York and “really became an organizer,” working at the intersection of racial justice and community development.
She moved back to Michigan in 2013, determined to serve families like her own. Alexander started the Prison & Family Justice Project at the University of Michigan Law School, representing incarcerated parents who were in threat of losing their children to the foster care system, but she wanted to be able to intervene before the situation reached a boiling point. That desire led to the work she’s doing with Detroit Justice Center while continuing to address the deeper, systemic evils at work.
Alexander points to a “huge victory” won just days before she spoke with BLAC. In January, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed into law more than three dozen criminal justice bills, including ones that grant police officers more discretion to issue tickets in lieu of arrests and disallow driver’s license suspensions for violations unrelated to dangerous driving, like, say, failing to appear in court or unpaid fines and fees.
“If we’re going to build a Detroit that includes everybody, where everybody belongs, then we have to address the impacts of mass incarceration,” Alexander says. “It’s really important to serve individual clients and to provide these life-changing legal services to people who need it right now, but lawyers often get stuck in only doing that. The idea is that we’re also going on offense, shoring up the longtime work of Detroit organizers, and also holding space for imagination.”
Pamela Alexander, director of community development for Ford Motor Company says …
Ford joins BLAC in commending Detroit Justice Center founder, Amanda Alexander, on her commitment to creating economic opportunities, transforming the justice system, and promoting equitable and just cities. Ms. Alexander’s call to provide a collaboration of solutions that value and empower families of returning citizens that have been divided by the prison system is admirable.
Ford Motor Company Fund understands the importance of change and shares the commitment to building community value. Through active involvement, we strive to improve the quality of life of our residents. Our Ford Resource and Engagement Center helps strengthen our communities by partnering with organizations to offer a full range of services and programs, such as legal assistance, career development, mentoring and tutoring services, and those to encourage economic growth and success.
Ford is proud to recognize Amanda Alexander for her vision of economic solutions and actions to build a city that is just, equitable and affordable for generations to come.
For more information on Detroit Justice Center, to donate or get involved, visit detroitjustice.org.