Though it’s been decades since the civil rights movement, former Boston prosecutor and criminal justice reform advocate Adam J. Foss says there still is more work to be done.
While giving a speech Friday at Coe College, Foss called on the people in the auditorium, and especially the young people in attendance, to “become the new civil rights leaders of their time.”
“Mass incarceration is the biggest human and civil rights crisis of our time, and it’s happening in our country every single day,” Foss told the crowded auditorium. “And this isn’t just a criminal justice issue, it strikes at every political and social and economic and health metric that you can possibly think of. And we’re handing it to the younger generation to fix.”
There are currently 2.3 million people in jails and prisons in the United Sates, Foss said, and another 5 million on probation and parole — “just one misstep away” from finding themselves back behind bars, he said.
In Iowa, data from the Iowa Department of Corrections show there are currently 8,490 people in jails and state prisons and another 23,685 on probation or parole.
A former assistant district attorney of Suffolk County in Boston, Foss, who is now an advocate of restorative justice practices, said talking to the young people who he faced as defendants revised his belief about a prosecutor’s role — namely that prosecutors should use their positions to change lives instead of ruin them.
To illustrate his point, Foss told a story about a young man named Stanley who was arrested in Boston at age 16 for stealing cellphones. At that time, Foss said he reprimanded the young man, told him to shape up and released him. A few months later, Stanley was in court with Foss again, and this time he was facing charges for stealing a Vespa. Again, Foss said he gave the boy a talking to and released him.
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“Little did I know, that I was committing a fundamental fatal flaw in thinking all my degrees and education made me smarter than the young people I was working with,” he said. “And if I had taken the time to listen instead to Stanley, instead of telling him what to do, we may have been able to avoid this situation, but I didn’t.”
The next time Stanley was arrested, Foss said the 17-year-old had graduated to armed robbery and was facing serious time in prison.
“So I started to listen,” Foss said. “I wanted to know how did I miss this? What happened? What didn’t I get the first two times?”
And as the two talked, Foss said Stanley didn’t talk about gangs or drugs or a lack of regard for the law. Instead, Foss said, the teen talked about survival.
Foss said Stanley spoke of his parents and the sacrifices they made to immigrate to the United States from the Dominican Republic when he was 9 years old to give him and his brothers a chance at a better education.
“And Stanley told me that at 9 years old, despite the fact that he had grown up in a developing nation, he had never seen violence and poverty and trauma the way that he did when he was living in the … projects in Boston.”
And that violence, poverty and trauma started to come for Stanley’s family, Foss said, and the teen watched as both his older brothers ended up behind bars and his father was forced to go back to the Dominican Republic. That stress, trauma and violence took a toll on Stanley’s mother. Stanley turned to stealing and reselling items so he could give that money to his mother to take care of her, Foss said.
That day, Foss said he learned that the young men he was prosecuting in court were often acting out of a need to survive.
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“The best piece of legal education I ever got came from a 17-year-old kid in an orange jumpsuit, not from a $150,000 piece of paper that hangs on a wall in my office,” he said.
Today, Foss is an advocate of stopping what he calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” through intervention and by connecting people who need help to resources and support to feel safe, protected and included.
“Very rarely is incarceration the answer,” he said. “And we can stop that pipeline by using our privilege and our power to help and support and protect those living in violent, impoverished communities.”
Instead, Foss advocated for early intervention through education, volunteerism, mentorship and continuing to have “uncomfortable conversations” around privilege, disparity, race and social justice, he said.
Additionally, Foss called for a reallocation of resources. Instead of investing hundreds of millions in the prison system, he said, the money would be better used for early child development and making education, health care and economic opportunity readily available.
“Prison doesn’t make us safer,” he said. “Each one of us has the opportunity to do something … tonight,” he said. “Read, vote, volunteer, visit an inmate … spend some time trying to make the life of one young person better. This is how we solve this problem, and we have the opportunity to do it every single day. And quite frankly, we have the responsibility and the power and the privilege to do it.”
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