Former Prosecutor and Activist Adam Foss Delivers on Criminal Justice Reform
“One in three black men born today will spend some time in jail or prison. One of three black women today has a relative in jail or prison. In fact, there are 2.3 million people in prison right now—another five million on probation or parole, one misstep away from being part of that larger number. Despite the fact that we only have 5% of the world’s population, we have about 25% of its incarcerated population; 100% of the children under the age of 17 who are locked up on this planet are locked up in our country; 70% of the women who are locked up on this planet or locked up in our country—90% of them are mothers there by virtue of the fact that they made a bad decision, typically because they’re victimized and traumatized; 50% of them will never see their children again.
“Every day that we wait, millions more people are arrested. Thousands more people are incarcerated, thousands more people are dying. These are civil rights violations, and as such, we need a new civil rights movement. We can’t wait anymore. But that’s why I love coming here, because when I look out in this room, I don’t just see a bunch of high school guys. I see the new civil rights leaders of our time.”
So began Adam Foss as he addressed students and faculty in the Smith Theater on November 6. Mr. Foss is a former Assistant District Attorney in the Juvenile Division of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office. A fierce advocate for criminal justice reform, and the important role of prosecutors in ending mass incarceration, Mr. Foss believes that the profession is ripe for reinvention—requiring better incentives and more measurable metrics for success beyond simply “cases won.” This belief led him to found Prosecutor Impact—a non-profit developing training and curriculum for prosecutors to reframe their role in the criminal justice system. In Hall he shared his experiences, his life story, and his hopes for every young person in the audience.
“Each one of us in this room is capable of achieving great things. But none of those great things happen without that opportunity pipeline—if each of us didn’t win life’s lottery,” said Mr. Foss. “Here’s the lottery ticket I won: I was born in a foreign country. I grew up in an orphanage until one day, two lovely people from white suburban Boston came and took me out of the litter instead of the other kid. I went home with them. I lived in their house. I went to their schools. I had my friends. Because of the privilege that they gave me, I was able to make it to where I am today. The fact that I was just that lucky drives me to do the work that I do today: I was given a sword and a shield—the shield was the privilege, protection from the prison pipeline rabbit hole, and the sword was for the haters. The sword was to fight off anybody that was trying to take that privilege from me, because I could use it to do something good. I urge you to think about your sword and your shield, because the power, privilege and opportunity that you have—they give you the power, privilege, and opportunity to help other people as well.
“All of those people sitting in prison and living in impoverished neighborhoods are not there because they’re not trying hard enough. It’s not that they’re not as smart as us, or as creative or ambitious. It’s because they have lived a life defined by poverty, violence and trauma. And because of that poverty, violence and trauma, thing happen to them when they’re children that start them very young on a certain path.
“You don’t have to be a prosecutor to do this work. You can be a pediatrician working with young mothers or kids who are living with poverty. You can be a teacher. You can be an architect, a scientist—anything that you do in your life, just think about the amazing things that you can do if you take out your sword and your shield. I implore you to do good with what you’ve been given. Fifty years from now, your legacy can be that you gave voice to the voiceless, that you gave power to the powerless, that you used your sword and your shield, that you were one of the new civil rights leaders of our time.”
During his nine years as a prosecutor, Mr. Foss collaborated with the courts and communities to develop programs that continue to have a positive impact on those neighborhoods; before leaving the D.A.’s office, Mr. Foss helped to develop the first juvenile division program in Suffolk County, keeping young people out of the cradle-to-prison pipeline. Most recently, Mr. Foss appeared in the critically-acclaimed CNN documentary film American Jail. In February of 2016, Mr. Foss delivered a TED talk that has eclipsed 2 million views.
Mr. Foss is the recipient of many honors: The Mandela Foundation named him the 2017 Nelson Mandela Changemaker of the Year; Fast Company named him one of the Most Creative People in Business of 2017; the NAACP awarded Mr. Foss with the 2017 Roy Wilkins Next Generation Leader Award; and The Root named him one of the 100 most influential black Americans of 2016. Mr. Foss was named Graduate of the Last Decade by his alma mater, Suffolk University Law School, and is a visiting senior fellow at Harvard Law School. He sits on the boards of Restore Justice California and of the Pretrial Justice Institute. In 2015, he was voted one of the country’s 40 most up-and-coming lawyers by National Law Journal; and in 2013, the Massachusetts Bar Association voted him Prosecutor of the Year. In both his professional and personal capacities, Mr. Foss volunteers much of his time to the community he works in.