SIT Netherlands alum on publishing her research and working to support criminal justice reform

February 22nd, 2021   |   Alumni, SIT Study Abroad

Alia Nahra poses on a balcony overlooking Amsterdam.

My research at SIT was a great way to show me that I can do things. I can just decide that something needs to happen and then find a way to do it. I can just make it happen.

Alia Nahra, a 2019 alumna of the SIT Netherlands: International Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender program, published an article “Criminalizing the Other: Exploring the Impact of the Netherlands’ Adaptation of Prosecutorial Guidelines on Sentencing Disparities,” in the fall 2020 issue of Critical Theory and Social Justice, a journal dedicated to first-class undergraduate research. A recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, Alia also recently moved to New York City to take a job as the special assistant to the director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

SIT Netherlands' Academic Director, Jana Byars, spoke to Alia on a Zoom call to congratulate her publication and to catch up on what she’s been doing since we last saw her heading through security at Schiphol Airport.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me about your article. Was it based on your research with SIT in Amsterdam? Where do you see it going from here?

It is fully my ISP [independent study project], just edited down to make it slightly shorter. We went through one full round of edits and they accepted it. It was supposed to be published in the spring, but you know, the world. So, it ended up getting published in the fall of 2020.

I think long term I am interested in the comparative side of that project. Much of the research in the US is, “There are so many problems, let me tell you more about this problem, it’s a problem.” I mean, yes, things are really bad. Let’s bring attention to these problems. Let’s call out the problems. Let’s gather the evidence for why the system is grounded in a really racist and classist history. That is really important.

But also, we have to ask, “What do we do about it?” Part of a solution could be to ask what other places are doing about it, especially places were also built on racist, classist systems. If there is a way for me to take this model, but perhaps a less quantitative approach, I think that would be great. That’s what I want to do.

My research at SIT was a great way to show me that I can do things. I can just decide that something needs to happen and then find a way to do it. I can just make it happen.

What else did you gain from your time at SIT?

I think my time at SIT made me a more international person. I lived in another place and I felt like I was a student of that place. I have a lot of friends who did study abroad programs and did not feel that way. I feel like I lived in the Netherlands.

The homestay makes a huge difference. But also, [SIT] had so many things ready to go for us. We had classes together and our excursions were arranged. We didn’t have to figure out all that little stuff and that left us so much more time to figure out the Netherlands.

Tell us about your new job. What kind of work and research are you doing?

Right now, we are publishing a federal agenda for what the new administration could do, in the short term, to advance criminal legal change. That is an example of a very Brennan Center project. We are working in the political sphere and we have a bunch of research to back up what we are saying. We have these ideas: this is what policy makers should do and this is how they should do it. We are working with the transition team and we are talking them through it. We think there is a good chance some of these things could happen.

Because I report to the director, I’m not limited to one particular project. Instead, I can be at least a bit involved in a lot of what the Center is doing. I think being remote also helps, because I get to do whatever needs to get done at whatever time. I’ve gotten to work on a lot of short-term research projects. Then I help with longer-term planning for 2021, and really take really deep dives into other topics.

What are you most excited about?

We are working on a punitive excess essay series of probably 15–20 essays, that will come out throughout 2021. We have a bunch of different people—academics, experts, impacted folks—who are each writing an essay focused on a particular aspect of America’s excessively punitive criminal legal system. We have someone from the Brennan Center who is writing an essay about race; that is the foundational, historical grounding for the beginning of the series. Then we have a lot of different professors writing about their areas of expertise and exploring the criminal legal trajectory of the US from their different fields. We have sociologists, historians, criminologists, practitioners. One of our writers was sentenced to life as a teenager and now writes about the excessively punitive juvenile justice system.

Alia Nahra in the Netherlands

That sounds fascinating! So, you are mixing the academic research with personal stories?

Yeah. We’re trying to do a little more with the storytelling component, producing video interviews and graphics to go along with the series. We want to make it a little more personal and not just academic. That kind of a project is something that I think brings together a lot of different collaborators, which is just important in anything you do, to have a lot of different perspectives. But also, I’m hoping this series will tap into some of our channels with policy makers and the public, and bridge that. This has the potential to convince people out in the world, normal people, who have heard of the Brennan Center to get to know us. They can read some of these pieces and think about the system in a different way. And it will come right after we are working somewhat directly with the new administration and policy makers.

How do you think this will help strengthen the message?

The criminal justice system is under the control of local and state law makers. It is a legislative issue. But if you take the big narrative, the broader story about why the system is messed up in a national way, and you tell people, they could see the problem. And that is something that has the potential to do some good. I think the academics and the research are really interesting, and I think documenting the atrocities is very important, but I think it is easy for the academics to have no impact on the lives of people. I want to find a way to merge the research side and the people. I want to use the data to tell this story in a meaningful way that can change the lives of people who are currently impacted.

What are your future plans?

I might do a JD/PhD, but I don’t have any interest in being a lawyer. I like the sociological side of the research, but I think that understanding the legal system is important, and you have to know how to talk to people who live in the legal world every day. If I want to make a difference, I have to do that.