With Lived Experience as a Guide Samantha Velez ’24 Pursues Transformative Justice


As Samantha Velez sees it, everyone has a story, a reason for their actions. Everyone deserves an advocate. We’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Shaped by her lived experience, those core beliefs fuel Velez’s drive to become a public defender and pursue transformative justice for her clients.

Tracing the steps along her path to St. John’s Law and into the legal profession, Velez says it all started with family. “My mother, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in the 1980s, has 12 brothers and sisters. So, I grew up surrounded by tons of cousins, aunts, and uncles. We spoke Spanish at home, and embraced our Catholic faith and culture.” Velez’s grandfather, the patriarch of that close-knit family, was her biggest influence growing up. “Our family, our culture, our faith, and our community were everything to him,” she says. “He was kindness and compassion personified, and I try to emulate him in everything I do.”

After moving from her native New York to Florida, Velez graduated from high school at 16 and soon entered the workforce. Several years later, she returned to New York, where she experienced financial and housing insecurity. “I had to do a lot of things to survive during that time, which opened my eyes to the criminalization of poverty,” says Velez. “So many people who have interactions with the criminal legal system are there because of a lack of resources. When you’re in a desperate situation, you do desperate things. And our system, as it currently exists, is not built to account for that.”

Encounters with a flawed legal system compelled Velez to pursue an education with a focus on law. “I experienced intimate partner violence,” she shares. “The legal system that was supposedly in place to protect me totally failed me. Unsure how to channel my anger and frustration, I decided to go back to college and help change things by becoming a lawyer. I attended classes at night, on the weekends, and early in the morning, earning my degree while working full time.”

It was during college that Velez first learned about transformative justice (TJ), a philosophy and approach to addressing acts of violence, harm, and abuse through the community, rather than through the police, the law, or the government. At the heart of the TJ movement is an understanding that all people are valuable and capable of transformation. “My life experiences inform my belief in TJ,” Velez says. “Incarcerating someone doesn’t repair the harm they may or may not have done, and it perpetuates violence. We hurt the people we incarcerate, their families, and our own community.”

With that understanding, Velez decided to become a public defender and enrolled at St. John’s Law, where she joined the student-run Latin American Law Students Association (LALSA), SJU Defenders, and Transformative Justice Initiative (TJI). “I chose those organizations very carefully,” she says. “I wanted to make an impact for future students and help create an inclusive community. TJI is a great organization that helps educate others to imagine a world where punishment is not the solution, but collective care is. SJU Defenders seeks to change the narrative of what public defense entails. Through its Street Law en Español program, LALSA helps students connect with and uplift our Queens community.”

Building on practical knowledge and skills gained at St. John’s Law, Velez spent this past summer interning at the Legal Aid Society’s Exploitation Intervention Project (EIP) in Queens. “Receiving financial support through the Law School’s Summer Public Interest Fellowship Program, I was able to choose an organization I genuinely believed in and wanted to work for, without having to worry about whether I would be able to pay my bills,” she says. “Our clients are sex workers and survivors of domestic violence, and many have been trafficked as well. Their arrests are only part of their story. So, in addition to filing motions to vacate convictions, obtaining case dismissals, and providing other legal and support services, EIP tries to teach judges, prosecutors, and the public to recognize that individuals are more than just ‘defendants.’ They’re human beings with complex histories.”

Velez stayed on at EIP this semester and, as she pursues a career anchored in transformative justice, she honors the loved ones she holds dear. “My family is my lifeline, and without them I wouldn’t be here,” she shares. “They sacrificed so much to come to the United States and give future generations opportunities they never had. As I look forward to being a lawyer who effects change for the individual and greater good, I know that my accomplishments will be as much theirs as mine.”