We're taking very young privileged people from law schools and putting them in communities where they've never been. There's this radical disconnect.
Adam Foss doesn't think prosecutors have too much power; he just thinks no one has trained them how to use it for good, or explained the damage it does when it's misused. What's more, he says, the prosecutors being asked to make the most consequential decisions—generally a rush of them, with little incentive to think outside the box—are the people newest to the job: entry-level prosecutors with little understanding of the communities where so many of the defendants they will encounter are from.
Foss was once one of those prosecutors, fresh from law school, working in Boston "in a neighborhood I wasn't allowed to go to as a kid." With encouragement from a mentor, Foss began choosing—or creating—alternatives to traditional sentences for many of the defendants he prosecuted. Today his Instagram feed is dotted with shots of happy runs-in he has on the streets of Boston with young men he kept from being behind bars.
Foss related his experiences in a 2016 TED Talk that became a sensation: 'A Prosecutor's Vision for a Better Justice System.' Indeed, the video was an important early moment in what has become a remarkable national movement to educate the public about the reach of prosecutor power, and to elect people to the position promising something other than more "tough on crime" policies.
Buoyed by the success of his message, Foss founded a nonprofit—Prosecutor Impact—to fill what was then a novel need: training incoming young prosecutors how to do the job in a way that doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past. In conversation with New Thinking host Matt Watkins, Foss explains how he works to fill what he calls new prosecutors' "empathy tanks"—riding sheriffs' buses to spend hours in prison with people being held on sentences of life without parole, and imparting the lessons Foss says law schools ignore; chiefly, the role of trauma and racism in encounters with the justice-system, and the ongoing legacy of that system in communities of color.
But it is precisely because of what Foss acknowledges is the "massive weapon" of prosecutorial discretion that he believes prosecutors are the actors best positioned to redress that legacy. "When you're doing the work in the way that I teach people how to do it now, there's something fulfilling about it that you can't get from other jobs."
Resources and References
- Adam Foss's nonprofit, Prosecutor Impact
- Video clip from the Brooklyn D.A. of Foss training incoming prosecutors in October 2018
- Prosecutor Power #4: Kim Foxx, Rooted in Humanity (New Thinking)
- The Brennan Center's L.B. Eisen on 'The Big Winners in DA Races: Women and Black Candidates' (11.18)
- John Pfaff on new Boston D.A. Rachael Rollins's list of "charges to be declined" (11.18)
- Foss's work featured in a New Yorker profile of Philadelphia D.A. Larry Krasner (10.18)
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
Matt WATKINS: Welcome to New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins. Today we have the fifth episode in our series on the power of prosecutors and I'm very excited about this one. Adam Foss is a former prosecutor in Boston who has since become a leading advocate for reforming how prosecutors do their work. In 2016 he did what has become kind of a rite of passage these days for getting your ideas out into the public debate, on the internet and beyond, and that is he gave a rousing TED Talk. In Adam Foss's case, that talk has had more than 2 million views.
Coming when it did I think we can say it was something of an important early moment in what has become this remarkable national focus and national organizing about the role of criminal prosecutors in our criminal justice system. So, here's about forty seconds actually of that TED Talk so you can see what I mean. He starts by mentioning the case of an 18-year-old African-American teenager named Christopher who had his sights set on college, but who had just been arrested for stealing laptops from an electronics store.
TED TALK EXCERPT: I was standing in arraignments that day when Christopher's case came across my desk and at the risk of sounding dramatic in that moment, I had Christopher's life in my hands. I was 29-years-old, a brand-new prosecutor, and I had little appreciation for how the decisions I would make would impact Christopher's life. For the most part, prosecutors step onto their job with little appreciation of the impact of our decisions, regardless of our intent.
We’re judged internally and externally by our convictions and our trial wins, so prosecutors aren't really incentivized to be creative, or to take risks on people we might not otherwise. We stick to an outdated method, counterproductive to achieving the very goal that we all want, and that's safer communities.
WATKINS: So that was my guest today, Adam Foss, from his 2016 TED Talk, ‘A Prosecutor’s Vision for a Better Justice System.’ Foss is now the founder and president of Prosecutor Impact, it's a nonprofit that helps to train new prosecutors in D.A. offices across the country and works to educate the public about the role of prosecutors. Adam, thanks so much for joining us today.
Adam FOSS: Matthew, I'm very happy to be here.
WATKINS: I thought we should start actually with picking up this story about Christopher that we just heard about. What happened in Christopher's case and what did you learn from it?
FOSS: What happened in Christopher's case and tens of thousands of other cases that I've been in contact with was Christopher made a bad decision at an important time in his life, a time that he was under a lot of pressure and didn't make the best decision and ended up in front of me in a courthouse and I went to my supervisor and said, "Is there something we can do here?" And my supervisor, who became one of the most important mentors in my life, said "Sure."
We diverted Christopher from the system and really loaded him up with community-based organizations, he was already doing a lot of the work on his own, and I lost track of Christopher, which is almost the best thing to happen to prosecutors is when you don't see the people that you've prosecuted come back in. A few years later actually, I saw Christopher at a social event that I was at with professional black men from the city of Boston and Christopher approached me and shook my hand and told me that he was doing very well for himself. He was a manager at a local bank in Boston and had graduated from college and was pursuing a license so he could get another promotion at his bank. And it was just reaffirmation of something that I repeated several times in my career that if you give people the chance and the support and the resources to do the right thing, more often than not they will.
WATKINS: It seems like looking at your Instagram feed that you have a habit of running into young men in the city of Boston who you've helped out as a prosecutor.
FOSS: Yeah, what I try to express to prosecutors is the difference between winning as we've been taught what a win feels like—convicting someone after a trial and sending that person to jail as a way to say that "we won," getting a plea that we've been working really hard on as way that we won. I try to convince prosecutors that the bigger win, the thing that feels the best, is seeing someone that you've prosecuted doing well in the community and seeing that the victims of those crimes have been made whole, and everybody's safer for it.
WATKINS: But obviously, with a different prosecutor, or it sounds like with a different person mentoring you at the time as a relatively inexperienced young prosecutor, Christopher's case could have turned out very differently and indeed as you pointed out, very often does, thousands of times. So what did that tell you about the role of the prosecutor, the power of the prosecutor? Because it really seems like you were able to exercise this quite breathtaking amount of discretion over what happened to him.
FOSS: What that experience taught me was that the metric system is broken.
WATKINS: How we measure the success of a prosecutor?
FOSS: Correct. And there's nothing at the core of me, or any of the prosecutors that I sat next to while I was working in that court, or the courts that I went onto and other prosecutors that I certainly work with now... There's nothing different at the core in terms of why we became prosecutors: we want people to be safe, we want something that look like fairness and justice, we want to repair harm that's been done. That is the core value that almost all of us come to the job with.
Then we are given a set of tools and a training, or education, that is bankrupt of anything that will get us to those things. So we resort to the evaluation of winning the way that we've been taught to win which is: don't do anything risky, don't think outside the box or do anything remotely creative, because that might result in something bad that might get us in the newspaper, and toe the company line.
WATKINS: And then could we talk a little bit on your own biography and how you ended up as a prosecutor. Because you've told a story about how you came very close to ending up on the other side of the criminal justice system.
FOSS: Sure, and that was something I talked about in my TED Talk was a time that I got caught selling a large quantity of marijuana and how that almost landed me in the criminal justice system. What I often don't talk about in public forums—not because I'm embarrassed, or ashamed to admit it, but because it's a larger conversation we all need to have—is through college there were plenty of times that I could have ended up on the other side of the criminal justice system. But, by the time I got to college there was this assessment made by society that I was allowed to screw up there.
I was allowed to drink and sell drugs and do drugs and I saw tens of thousands of crimes in the time that I was at state university.
WATKINS: Right, because you made it through the hoops to get into college, so you've got that shield.
FOSS: Exactly. And as a society we're running around looking for solutions to this problem, it's like we have some pretty good examples of how to do this when young people screw up and make sure that they just cross the finish line. College and universities is one way, you think about what goes on in our high schools in the suburbs and where parents have wealth and access to attorneys, and therapy, and rehab, and all these things. We know what the solution is. But as a society we have to have the very difficult conversation about why it's good for some, and not good for others, and frankly the reason that I got the pass was that I grew up with two white parents in a very white community and got that pipeline directly to college.
WATKINS: Right, and we should point out to listeners that you're an African-American male.
WATKINS: And your father was a police officer, if I have that right…
FOSS: And that's frankly what protected me that first time I got caught. We do not have the conversation that we need to be having about equity in terms of race when it comes to what do we do, particularly when young people mess up.
WATKINS: You got the second chance, as a prosecutor you helped a lot of other young men get a second chance. But then you made the decision to stop being a prosecutor; stay in the field obviously but stop formally prosecuting cases. I'm just wondering about what led to that decision?
FOSS: There was never a moment in time where I was like "I want to get out of here." It was the only job that I've ever had where I'd look up at the clock and be like, "I wish I could stay here longer."
WATKINS: Because you just felt like the prosecutor is in a position to make such a difference?
FOSS: Yes. That and when you are doing the work in the way that I learned how to do it, in the way that I try to teach people how to do it now, there's something fulfilling about it that you can't get from other jobs. So, after the TED Talk and sort of the barrage of opportunity that came with that, including the platform that I could then stand on and say, "There's a better way to do this and let's push forward towards that," it was sort of a necessary evil to leave and ride the wave of that opportunity to get this message out there and looking back, as much as I miss the job and cannot wait to go back to it, I am glad that I've taken the last two-and-a-half years to start spreading this message and start working with prosecutors hands-on to reframe the way that we do this job.
WATKINS: It sounds like part of the reason you found the prosecutor job so satisfying was because of the amount of power that there was in the role, and the amount of discretion, which in your case you used to really make a difference in the lives of the young men that you're running into on the street in Boston. But, is it your position that you want prosecutors to maintain that amount of discretion, but use it for good, not for ill? Or, do you think they simply have too much discretion and there needs to be more guardrails on the sides of it?
FOSS: There are people who advocate for less discretion in the hands of prosecutors and I can totally understand that. I'm sure that there would be ways to tie the hands of prosecutors the way that we've tied the hands of judges in a lot of places. Wherever you're doing that, to me, you're squeezing a water balloon, that discretion is just going to go somewhere else and we don't want it to go away from the person part of whose job description is seeing that fairness is done.
Our job is not to represent the victims of crime, our job is not to get as many convictions as possible and to get as long a prison sentence as possible. Our job is to promote public safety and to represent the community and if I could pick anyone in the system to give that amount of discretion, it would be the prosecutor.
My problem with that discretion is that it's a massive weapon and we send very, very young people out into the world educating them in this rote, traditional model that we continue to feed our legal profession with.
WATKINS: You mean, law schools are not really changing that much how they're training would-be prosecutors?
FOSS: Not at all. There are clinical programs that are decent at on-boarding prosecutors, getting them ready for the traditional role they're going to play. There are few, if any, law schools that have taken on this idea that maybe we should think about the way that we train people to go into the criminal justice system at all.
In fact, a lot of law schools that I go to, if they have a social justice flavor to them, they advocate very strongly against their students becoming prosecutors. I have young people coming up to me all the time saying, "I live in this culture, I'm studying in this culture where everybody's telling me, ‘Do something else, don't be a prosecutor…’”
WATKINS: Kim Foxx said the same thing in here, that she was having a hard time getting people.
FOSS: And I can understand that! There's a myth and the myth is warranted in a lot of places. But what I say to young people all the time in law school is, "At the end of the day if I look at my scoreboard and the scoreboard of a public defender, the number of people that I kept out of jail and prison far exceeds the number of people kept out by public defenders." Not in a competitive way, but just because of that power dynamic, I had the ability to do that in a way that made me feel good, because it wasn't about playing this game with evidence and negotiating plea bargains. It was thinking about every single person as an individual and trying to address the reasons that they came to the courthouse in the first place.
WATKINS: So, the work you do now with the nonprofit you founded, "Prosecutor Impact," is basically training prosecutors on how to use this enormous power—a power that it sounds like you're suggesting is maybe a necessary one. You choose to focus on new prosecutors. Do you want to talk a little bit about that choice, to focus on the incoming prosecutors, and then explain about the kind of work that you're doing with them?
FOSS: In this very recent race to put an end to mass incarceration, advocacy groups and the media and stakeholders have really been focused on the sexy issues and the leadership who are making policy. So, we're going after minimum mandatory sentences, we're going after life without parole, we're going after the war on drugs. We're talking about electing new prosecutors, electing new D.A.s to make sure they're adopting these policies, and we sort of just shot over the fact that my workload, my footprint on the criminal justice system, declined as I became more senior.
It was the first days I was a prosecutor, those first years I was a prosecutor, when I was churning lots and lots of cases of varying severity that was really making that footprint in our jails and in our prisons. It wasn't when I became a more senior prosecutor, because my caseload went down to the very specified unit that I was in.
We sort of just shot over this assumption that it was all about these senior level people.
WATKINS: Those first years are when you're really acquiring the culture of the profession as well, right? That you're not getting in law school it sounds like.
FOSS: Absolutely and so when you're standing there, they send you to the arraignment session as a new prosecutor and we always look at sort of like the homicide trial as the pinnacle of the criminal justice system. That's where all the really heavy-duty stuff is happening. It's actually like, no, it's the arraignment, it's this first touch with the criminal justice system. Or maybe it's your seventeenth touch, but whatever it is…
WATKINS: It's so consequential…
FOSS: It's so consequential—to everything; whether you're charged with a misdemeanor or felony; whether you're charged with something that has a collateral consequence, which down the road is going to make it difficult for you to be doing the thing that we want you to do.
I could charge you with an armed robbery, or I could charge you with larceny from a person. Those sorts of decisions are made by very junior prosecutors who are just trying to survive in an office where their metric system is "Don't screw up." We should just turn that on its head and say, "Think long term.”
Do not think about whether or not this person goes out and does something bad tomorrow. We should think about what happens in five years from now when this person hopefully is away from the criminal justice system.
What we try to do in the training is fill three gaps in current legal education and district attorney training. One is the recognition that you're taking very young privileged people from law schools and putting them into communities where they've never been.
WATKINS: There's this radical disconnect.
FOSS: Radical disconnect. Again, in this chase to end mass incarceration, we sort of just hopped over the fact that maybe we don't know what we're doing. So you have people who have never been inside of a jail or a prison. You have people who have never walked in a neighborhood that has poor people in it.
So, the core of the training is immersive proximate learning and learning from being in the experience, so that we can start filling an empathy tank.
WATKINS: Wait, how do you do that? How do you fill somebody's empathy tank? That's pretty daunting.
FOSS: So, during our training in Philadelphia, on our second day of training, we sat in Sheriff's buses and we took the ride to Chester Prison with the bars in the windows. We took that same bus, the same ride that lots and lots of men and women take and we went and sat in prison. We didn't take the tour, which is what lots of D.A. offices do ...
WATKINS: The sanitized version.
FOSS: Right—“Look at the basketball court, look at the classroom, here's this one incarcerated person...” We didn't take the tour. We went and sat in a room for five hours with 12 men who were serving life without parole sentences to talk to them about the utility of the life without parole sentence. Within hours you could see the mindsets of these young prosecutors, who came in thinking these were going to be the worst of the worst, to thinking, "Man, we are wasting valuable resources here in people who could be out here helping us out."
Understanding that they've done something bad, but maybe they've served enough time. Because now they're 40 years old and they did the thing when they were 17. We took them on a neighborhood tour, not like the one that I got which was a ride along with the police who were saying "That's a crime neighborhood, and that's a project, and that's a homeless camp."
We took them on a neighborhood tour going into those "bad neighborhoods" and saying: “that's a community asset right there. Look at this community-based organization; here's an individual that people come to when they need something, let's talk to those people, figure out how to bring them in to make this place safer.” So that's sort of the empathy, immersive, experiential learning piece.
The second piece is the recognition that all during law school I was learning subjects like wills and trusts and estate law and family law and torts, all to take this test, which immediately when I was done with the test all of that information just came out of my head.
I walked out of law school, took that test just like everybody else, and left. Some of those people wanted to be tax lawyers, some of them wanted to be divorce lawyers, some of them went to big firms. I just chose this job. Not because I had any specialized skill or training, but because it was available. I was sent to a neighborhood that I was not allowed to go to as a kid and I was being asked on my first day to make really important decisions about those people's lives. Not recognizing that a lot of the reasons that they were there were from unresolved trauma.
You know what word I never even heard in law school? Do you know what subject I never studied in law school? Trauma. There was never a discussion of poverty as a system of structures, as opposed to like the deprivation of wealth. There was no conversation about adolescent brain development, even though adolescents were sort of like our biggest problem, if you want to call it that, in the criminal justice system; not the adolescents that I understood until I started learning about adolescents, but scientific adolescents, when risky behaviors are part of life and violence is a thing when you live in a place where you've been accustomed to violence.
Nobody had ever taught me those things. So, the second tenet of training is just, let’s fill your academic tanks with things that will make you understand the whole confluence of these things and make your decisions more informed.
Then, the third piece is just really about recognizing that as young prosecutors, particularly those who are going in under very progressive new D.A.s, that there is going to be a tremendous amount of culture pushing back on you and how do you avoid the pitfall of walking back into that very rote mindset of, "I just want to survive here, I'm going to do what I'm told to do." So it was about cohort and leadership development so that as a team these folks could come together and talk about these issues and push the agenda forward.
WATKINS: And then what about the issue of race and racism. There's so much discussion in criminal justice reform circles about implicit bias. It sounds like in the work you're doing you also need to address explicit bias and talk about racism. I'm just wondering how you approach that and what kind of reactions you get, particularly from some of the people who just have not been exposed to a wider spectrum of life, as you say.
FOSS: I don't enjoy sort the box-checking trainings that are like, "Oh, we did an implicit bias training, we're good." I worked in the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston; the first implicit bias training I ever got was on my eighth year as a prosecutor! It was an hour-and-a-half long. I signed my name saying I had been and that was it.
Never once did I know that Suffolk County, and Massachusetts at large, have the second highest racial disparity in the country in terms of our incarceration population. So you can check the boxes if you want, but if you're not constantly talking about it as a thread throughout your entire training and throughout your workforce then you're not doing anything. So we addressed implicit bias, explicit bias, the history of racism, the history of mass incarceration several times during the training and we'll continue to do it through continuing education, not just as an academic lecture, but through experiential learning, through that sort of cohort development where you have young black prosecutors talking about how their experience is wildly different than the other prosecutors who are in the office, all the way from law school through the office and what that feels like.
Taking them to the prison outside of Philadelphia where the state population of Philadelphia is 90 percent white, but when you went into that prison the white people were the people working there. All of those experiences, and then giving the students the time to reflect in groups and self-reflect, really drove home these concepts of racial explicit and implicit biases.
WATKINS: Do you feel you're only getting invited in to do trainings with more progressive-minded prosecutors? So in that sense not reaching everybody you might want to reach?
FOSS: Yeah, and that's okay for now. That's okay with me for now.
WATKINS: We need more of you in some ways.
FOSS: We need more of lots of us. I don't want to become a campaign token.
WATKINS: A "check the box, we talked to Adam Foss, we're good."
FOSS: Yes, so what we're doing is really looking for commitments from D.A.s offices that we work with when we go in. There's sort of a smell test, because it's a very different thing that we're suggesting and it takes somebody who has bravery and who is going to have the fortitude to withstand the fact that something bad is going to happen.
Anytime you try anything new there are going to be bad results. The question we really have to ask ourselves is, "How have we been so willing to put up with all of the bad results of the current criminal justice system?"
WATKINS: Which we accept as the norm.
FOSS: Which is absurd! If you think, we have a 70 percent failure rate, the thing that we've been doing for hundreds of years has a 70 percent failure rate and it costs billions of dollars.
WATKINS: By failure rate you mean people reoffending?
FOSS: Reoffending, yeah. So that's the thing that we know. What we have a very hard time measuring is the community also doesn't trust us. We're a less safe society because the community doesn't pick up the telephone. And so with the confluence of those two things I don't know how any person of sane mind can look at that evidence as a lawyer and say, "we're doing a good job."
I talk a lot about the medical industry and the airline industry and in those two industries they have taken failure as a learning opportunity, as opposed to something that's going to get us in trouble, and we've seen marked improvement in both of those industries. What I'm really trying to do is to get prosecutors to start looking at failures when they try to do something different in relation to the failures that we already have.
You look at a prosecutor like Dan Satterberg out in Seattle…
WATKINS: Long-time progressive prosecutor.
FOSS: Long-time progressive prosecutor, Republican white male. Optically it's not the guy you think is going to be out here pounding his fists for progressive reform. He starts diverting young people who are carrying firearms. Recognizing that lots of young people are carrying firearms, not because they're bad gang kids, but because they're afraid of their environment. On his sixth diversion one of those kids goes out and commits a homicide. Most other prosecutors would have run to their corner and been like "I'm never doing that again." But Dan and the team that were around him were able to take a step back and say, "This is a tragedy, but it's a tragedy we can learn from because it's not that this method is wrong. It's that we didn't get this one right, and if we look at the bigger picture, we also have five people who have been diverted on firearms who are doing well."
That scoreboard is not true when you look at what we used to do which is just send everyone to jail.
WATKINS: So could we turn to talk a little bit about this broader movement to elect what are commonly referred to as "reform-minded" or "progressive” prosecutors. I was heartened to hear you refer earlier to what you see as a race now to end mass incarceration. How do you account for the fact that it really does just seem in the last couple of years—I don't know if we date it back to the election of Kim Foxx in Chicago, or where we start the movement—but that there just has been seemingly this massive uptick in the amount of scrutiny and this revelation about the power of prosecutors.
FOSS: I think it honestly was just the conversation and public education. Maybe you wouldn't be astonished because you work here, but the thing that people said to me the most after my TED Talk was, "I didn't know that." To me, for a population of people who are so wedded to what's happening in Washington and what's happening in Congress, we've completely missed the boat and we think that that is like the be-all, end-all of everything that we do. Not recognizing that if you care the most about criminal justice reform, your local prosecutor is way more important than whatever 45 is doing right now.
WATKINS: Right and there's like 2,600 of them across all the counties of the US.
FOSS: So what you've seen is better public education. When these elections come around what you're seeing are people finding candidates that they want to support, those candidates having a very good policy platform and folks supporting those candidates and coming out in droves.
WATKINS: Is there anything that makes you nervous about how quickly the movement has developed?
FOSS: The thing that actually makes me the most nervous is the dime that people want these prosecutors to turn the criminal justice system around on. I appreciate so much the advocacy community who made all of this very possible and asking them to be patient I understand is disrespectful in many ways, because of the number of people that continue to go in the system.
But we have to recognize that this system was built over centuries and the people who often are being elected to the tops of these places are not the traditional people that people are just falling behind, and getting in line with and holding up. That there's a lot of work to be done and it's going to take unfortunately decades and Kim Foxx might never see the impact of the work that she's doing right now.
We just have to obviously hold people accountable for promises that they've made but support them when everything isn't going right all of the time and understand that it takes a lot more than the swipe of a pen and a policy statement to undo hundreds of years of culture, particularly when you're working in one cog of a system that depends on lots of other cogs.
WATKINS: Then if we look a little bit at some recent stuff that's in the news… Midterm elections were also elections for D.A.s and some criminal justice stuff across the country. It does seem like there's now, at the top level, there's an influx of new faces and non-white faces, as opposed to this world where district attorneys used to be 95 percent white. I wonder if you have a reaction to these most recent races?
FOSS: The reaction that I've had to the most recent races is elation. It's so good to see going down the list, “first black D.A., first black female D.A., first black Sheriff, first black- whatever it is.” Those are important victories not just because of the person’s race, but because of what that represents in terms of who is sitting at the head of the table making decisions.
WATKINS: Because of this disconnect issue.
FOSS: Because of the disconnect issue. Obviously diversity is much more than just the color of your skin. Kim Foxx is a special human being because her diversity of experience is what makes her the amazing leader that she is. But, then you also have diversity in terms of experience of civil rights attorneys being elected to be the district attorneys, former public defenders, organizers being elected to district attorney in these places. For folks who are worried that somehow that means that they're just going to unlock the cell doors and let everybody out, I have to remind you that those people want the same things that everybody wants which is a safe community.
This isn't a movement towards being lenient and being soft, this is a movement towards being a safer, more trusted institution at a much lower cost that we can invest our money in the things we invest in and other communities that we see can help young people in particular get across a few finish lines that allow them to participate in the economy.
WATKINS: Then I imagine it must be really meaningful to you, the victory of Rachael Rollins in Boston—that's the city where you live now, I think. You came in today controversially wearing a Boston Red Sox jacket, you used to work as a prosecutor in Suffolk County, in Boston, we now have an African-American woman at the head of the office. She announced just recently a list of low-level charges that are often crimes of poverty that she's going to decline to prosecute and rather try to route towards diversionary stuff and civil stuff. That must be a tremendously meaningful event for you.
FOSS: One of the most meaningful events of my adult life. Again, not just because Rachael's a black woman, but because Rachael is a single mother, because Rachael is a foster mom, because Rachael has siblings that are in the criminal justice system, because Rachael has blemishes on her own criminal justice record, because Rachael is a survivor. All of those experiences bring to bear perspective that will inform the policies of her office that maybe can get us out of that terrible position of being, yes, very low in incarceration, but very high in racial disparities.
Boston is such a weird place in that we're sort of the hub of education and medicine and yet our performance in our public schools and our performance in access to healthcare for our own impoverished communities is among the worst in some of our major cities. So I think all of that is at the center point indicative of what is possible with a new prosecutor at this head of the office like Rachael.
WATKINS: Yeah, it does feel like there's just a lot of fascinating and incredibly consequential experiments going on in D.A. offices across the country. A final question: do you have a sense of what's in the future for you? Are you going to stick with the Prosecutor Impact-style work for the foreseeable future?
FOSS: For the foreseeable future, I'll be with Prosecutor Impact and working on developing this training so that prosecutors can do it on their own. I don't want to become this monolithic organization that is in technical assistance for D.A. offices. I miss very much the days of doing this stuff hands on and watching that change happen over time and running into those people in the street. That's the best feeling in the world.
I love doing what I'm doing and hearing the feedback from the young prosecutors going in and seeing their conflict happen and seeing them be able to stand up and say, "No, this is meaningful to me. I'm going to do something about it." I appreciate that. But I'm hoping in 10 years that this is just the gold standard and we've taught enough people how to do it that we never go back to the place where it's like, "We don't have enough time and resources to train our people."
We need to recognize that this is one of the only professions that we have this amount of discretion over other people's lives in and as a result we need to have training and education that looks a lot more like medical school, or the military where you have very specialized people who are using these weapons, because they've been trained how fickle that responsibility, that discretion is and how deeply it can impact people's lives.
Until we get there, I will be on that front line and hopefully when we do I can return to the front line that got me here in the first place.
WATKINS: Well listen, it's been a real pleasure getting to know more about your work and getting to know some more of your really valuable perspectives. I just want to thank you so much for coming in.
FOSS: Thanks for having me, man.
WATKINS: I've been speaking to Adam Foss. Adam was a former prosecutor in Boston.He's now the president of Prosecutor Impact which helps to train new prosecutors across the country. You can get some more info on Adam and his organization and info on this episode by visiting our website, that's courtinnovation.org/newthinking. While you're there, you can find out more about the previous episodes we've been having in this intermittent prosecutor series, interviews are there with the likes of John Pfaff, Scott Hechinger, and, as you've been hearing, Chicago's top prosecutor Kim Foxx.
Technical support for today's episode from the affable Bill Harkins. Our director of design is Samiha Meah. Our theme music is by Michael Aharon at quivernyc.com. This has been New Thinking from the Center for Court Innovation. I'm Matt Watkins, thanks for listening.