Former assistant district attorney Adam J. Foss, founder of Prosecutor Impact. Image by Sadie Barnette/courtesy of Adam Foss.
When I gave a TED Talk in February 2016 about reforming the American justice system, I wasn’t trying to start a revolution. At the time, I was an assistant district attorney at the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston. My career as a prosecutor had exposed me to some real solutions for reducing mass incarceration, but the audience’s interest and reaction — the talk has since been viewed more than two million times — was something I’d never experienced.
My goal was simple: To inform people of a reality that we – prosecutors – have the power to enact change so that we’re not ruining lives but are making them better. And that’s the idea behind Prosecutor Impact, a nonprofit I founded in 2016. We strive to give new prosecutors the right tools before they enter situations in which their decisions could impact the lives of others forever.
Trying to change the way people approach a system that dates back to colonial days is no easy feat. Luckily, though, I’ve learned that it’s not about blowing the current system up. There are small changes we can each make now regardless of our professions or specific goals that, little by little, will make a real difference.
We need to change the narrative about victims and offenders of crime and recognize that more often than not, there is a very thin line between the two. Crime, particularly violent crime, is more a manifestation of untreated trauma or victimization of the offender than a pathological deficit we cannot overcome. Only when we consider all of the factors that might be influencing the lives of “criminals” — poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc. – can prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement resolve cases with the best outcomes for the community.
The importance of context holds true outside of the criminal justice system as well. Accessing context, however, requires some self-starting and commitment. If you work in urban development, each week, volunteer to explore a part of town you haven’t visited before. If you’re a teacher thinking about new means to reach your students, arrange to observe classes somewhere that has little in common with your home school. If you are a coach, take your team on a service project. If you have an extra half hour, go read to children in marginalized schools. Brainstorm what could be useful to have more firsthand knowledge of, then read about, watch, and experience those things as best you can. It’s important to expose yourself to something new on a regular basis so that you constantly have new information to guide how you view the world.
Our current criminal justice system will not improve if we do not understand what brings people into our courthouses every day, and we will continue to fall short of our collective goals to make communities safer. People often confuse empathy and sympathy and render this conversation a non-starter.
Take me. I was born in Colombia and adopted by a Boston-area law enforcement family. I never had to worry about hunger, clothing, or shelter. Yet as a teenager, I wasn't making enough at my landscaping job to buy the things I wanted. One night, at a party in my city, an older kid told me about the money he made selling marijuana. A combination of peer pressure, poor judgment and the need for instant gratification, I walked out of the party with my own weed to sell. Imagine a young person growing up in poverty, worrying about his next meal or a bed, caring for a family, and having few job prospects enters the same illegal economy I was in. Empathy requires us to try and understand that it is often environment and not some irredeemable, criminal element in them.
While this is near impossible to do completely, strive to approach every situation without preconceived notions. We don’t know what another person is dealing with, nor does he or she necessarily know anything about our struggles. If we can learn to place our biases aside and treat each case with solution-oriented approaches and compassion, we are on our way to building something new and more productive.
Sometimes tradition gets in the way of improvement. Our reticence to change is often just the inertia of status quo. It's easy and comfortable. Given the glacial pace of innovation in the criminal justice system, it is imperative that we think about many avenues to meaningful change. We need to think about our end goals and allow ourselves to think radically how we might achieve them. By considering context and practicing empathy, the potential for broad, positive change is endless.
It’s important to focus on how attainable your goal actually is. I don’t think of what I’m doing as changing an entire system or culture. I think of it as trying to do to criminal justice what we’ve successfully done with many other professions – which is to modernize it. Then, it’s about focusing on the little shifts that will make it happen. At Prosecutor Impact, we work to give people the tools and technology they need to do their best work - the work they set out to do in coming to the profession - to make communities safer and healthier. We encourage them not to acquiesce to the tradition of the justice system, but to always challenge status quo and ask critical questions about the end goals.
I rarely describe what I’m doing as "changing hearts and minds" of prosecutors. Having worked for over a decade in the system, I'm convinced that prosecutors, for the most part, have their hearts and minds in the right place, especially when they first enter the profession. Instead, the message is about innovation, equipping those folks with the tools, information, and technology they deserve to carry out their mission. There are people who have dedicated their entire lives and careers to doing things the way they are currently done, so suggesting that I am somehow trying to do it better implies that they have been doing something wrong, or that their motivations are different. Neither is true. The message I want to send is that the system and those responsible for shaping policy and budgeting have denied access to fundamental resources prosecutors need to do the best job possible. It's about accessing an audience, supporting their core values, and encouraging reform with those values in mind.
There are thousands of stories of people whose experiences with the criminal justice system did not end in incarceration because somebody in a position of power decided to break the status quo. That’s great. Even though there’s much to be learned around what we’re doing, the experience of helping one person can keep you going for a long time. I maintain relationships with many of the young men I prosecuted to this day, so I’m reminded daily of the impact thinking differently can make. Whatever your success is, celebrate it. You don’t need the be all and end all to see a reward.
Images courtesy of Adam J. Foss