GLENN: Adam Foss is the founder and executive director of Prosecutor Impact, a guy who never thought he was going to be a prosecutor. You -- I love this. You're so honest.
You got into law. You went to law school, for?
GLENN: Money. I love it. Love that. And then you started seeing how the system really works, and then you thought, this is broken. This is really bad. You want to explain?
ADAM: Yeah. First, thank you for getting into this conversation. It's an important one that we need to be having. Should be something that we're talking about more often than we already do.
When I walked into a courthouse for the first time in a city and saw a literal and figurative divide between the people who are constantly impacted by the criminal justice system and those people who were enforcing it, who were prosecuting, who were defending, who were judging, who were probating, the divide and the sort of tone-deafness and the patriarchy of those folks, you could see the impact -- the negative impact happening in the moment.
And yet, we would tell ourselves that this is a great system, this is working. It's punishing people. It's teaching them lessons. It's creating safer communities. Was a falsity.
And so that's what drove me into the criminal justice system and the work that I continue to do today.
GLENN: So you're a prosecutor now. And you had a guy -- I think Christopher was his name, right?
GLENN: That came in front of you as a prosecutor, and you had a choice. Tell me about this.
ADAM: Christopher was a young person who made a series of really bad judgments and stole a bunch of laptops from his part-time job. And sold them for a lot of money. And he was going to use that money to apply for college.
And it's something that we don't talk enough about, is how people many times commit crimes out of necessity or perceived necessity. He came in, a young black man, who was charged with 30 counts of felony larceny.
And just the appearance of those things on his criminal record, which had doomed him for life. A young black man from my neighborhood being charged with 30 counts of theft, you're not getting employed anywhere.
So at that point in time, where I had to decide what to do with the case --
GLENN: Yeah. Because that's what the DA does. The DA decides what the charges are. How you're going to handle it. I mean, you're one guy.
So one bad guy can make a whole bunch of bad decisions. One good guy can make a lot of good decisions.
GLENN: So you're in the -- you're looking at him, and you're like, what are we going to do? And how did you balance justice and mercy?
Justice, to me -- and for -- for people who are in our justice system, needs to be accounting for everything about that person, and not just what does the law say and what happened?
And what will happen to them if we go down this road? Is it just that this young man because he made this decision based on his own calculation should never get a job again? And what is that going to do to us? Is that going to make us a safer society if this kid is now 25 and unemployed?
ADAM: So you have -- when considering what justice is, you need to be thinking about all these things in context. And for me, the context was, we still have the ability to teach the kid a lesson, which was ultimately what the justice system is built for.
But we don't need to do so in a way that is purely punitive. And hopefully we'll have a better outcome than sending him to jail.
GLENN: So this particular case did have a better outcome. Explain the outcome.
ADAM: So we worked together. And he worked with community-based organizations, to get himself into school. He did community service.
He repaid what he had stolen from the story. He got back laptops that he had stolen because he had tracked down the people on the internet that he sold them to.
And then I lost track of him. Which is actually a good thing in the criminal justice. It's a good thing to never see people again.
Until, you know, six or seven years later, I'm at a professional men's event, men of color in the city of Boston, and this kid approaches me. And it's the young man from Cordin (phonetic). I didn't recognize him. He was a grown man at this point. And he had a very well-paying job in Boston. He owned a home. He had a child that is going to not live in poverty. And so all of these things were the result of decisions that I, as one prosecutor and with the help of other colleagues, made. And we have the ability to do that every single day. People could be doing it right now.
GLENN: So here's -- here -- I don't think anybody would disagree with the intent.
GLENN: I mean, that's what the justice system is for, to correct behavior. And if behavior can't be corrected, then just take them off the streets.
GLENN: However, we're living at a time now where I've really lost faith in the justice system. I mean, I can't -- I've always believed that justice was -- you know, that it pretty much worked out. I don't believe that anymore. And I think it has been kind of a lie that I lived any whole life.
It may be the best system in the world, but it still sucks.
GLENN: But I don't -- but we're also living at a time where people, they're not held accountable for anything.
GLENN: So how do you balance that?
ADAM: So accountability is a funny word that we use in the criminal justice system. As prosecutors, we use it all the time. I'm holding this person accountable.
And the suggestion that if I do something on December 1st, 2016, and then we litigate my responsibility for that thing, for the course of a year or 18 months, then at the end of that thing, we either try the case, or you plead out to that, which actually mitigates your responsibility in the action. We call that -- we call that accountability.
And we only call that accountability because hundreds of hundreds of years ago, some white guys sitting around the table, were like, this is how we're going to do it. We didn't measure it and validate it and say, yes, this actually brings about accountability. We just said punishment equals accountability, and we've just done that forever.
And so we're the criminal justice system fails is by exchanging punishment for actual accountability.
And with Christopher -- Christopher is one example of thousands and thousands of people that I was privileged to work with as a prosecutor, for Christopher, accountability wasn't about getting criminal record and going to jail and being deprived of his future. Accountability was about every day, him doing something that reminded him of the harm that he caused.
Christopher, you're going to write essays about what you did. And I know that sounds sort of ethereal and trite, but --
GLENN: No, with some people, it would work. With some people, it would work.
ADAM: You would be amazed at how many people it works with, to actually talk about harm and how -- let that person talk about why they created that harm. And understand the gravity and depth of that harm. And then work to repair that harm. That's accountability.
STU: Doesn't it seem though -- because I think the argument would be, isn't everybody who steals a bunch of laptops now going to come up in front of you and say, hey, I needed them for college. And I'm going to turn things around. And eventually, if you let me go, I'll be a high-paid person in Boston, and it's all going to work out well.
How can you balance that? Do you have to judge each specific case and just try to figure it out? Does everyone get the same amount of chances? The law is obviously supposed to treat everyone the same way. How do you navigate that?
MIKE: Well, first, like the fundamental principle that the law is supposed to treat everyone the same way we know is -- is a falsity.
STU: But we want to work towards that, right?
ADAM: We do. But in the time that we do, the people who suffer the most from that fallacy are most marginalized people.
GLENN: And you would put marginalized people to anyone who can't afford it.
ADAM: Can't afford it.
GLENN: It doesn't matter your skin color. It's all -- it really is about money.
ADAM: It is. It's about money, it's about socioeconomic status. It's about your capital and how much you are worth to the 1 percent, basically.
Stu, to your question, sure, lots of people might say, hey, you know, I should get a break too.
And as a society, we need to start asking ourselves, like, if young, poor black kids are coming up to me and saying I stole laptops because I was poor, then maybe each case should get an individual look and say, I hear you. And we have some responsibility for creating that situation. So as a society we need to be prepared to say, yeah, we're going to give you a bunch of chances, because guess what, everyone sitting at this table, got a million. Everybody that is in Washington or in the media right now, that suddenly are losing their jobs, that was after hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of infractions that we just looked aside.
The place where there's the most amount of sexual violence, the most amount of physical violence, the most amount of drug use, the most amount of cheating and stealing, is not in the impoverished neighborhoods of Detroit and Chicago and Boston. It's on college campuses. And as a society, we are okay with that, because we know at some point, this young person will grow out of this behavior. They will be successful. And most of that, hopefully will stop.
GLENN: So you are -- you have -- you got into it for the money. You left and you became a DA. And now you are trying to educate DA's all around the country to -- to, what, exactly?
ADAM: One -- it's not even -- I guess it is to educate them. Not in the sense that I know more than them. It is -- it is a tragedy what we deprive lawyers of, when they want to go and do public service in law school.
I didn't come out of law school prepared to be a prosecutor, making really, really important decisions about people's lives. Because I didn't understand a thing about those people's lives.
ADAM: I didn't know anything about the consequences of convictions or even arraigning a person. I didn't know that if you were arraigned for selling drugs in the city of Boston, just arraigned, not convicted, that you could lose your public housing. And not just you, but everybody on the lease.
So if you were accused of selling drugs because you are poor to make money, the response of the justice system is to remove you from your public housing and make it -- to teach you a lesson. How is that making us safer?
STU: It might make you more likely to go back to that behavior.
GLENN: Because it's the -- it's the classic story of John Bell John.
GLENN: That you have your yellow ticket of leave, and if you don't have your yellow ticket of leave, then I got to present it. But if I present it, I ain't getting a job.
ADAM: Right. And so for -- for -- unfortunately, law schools aren't trying to reinvent sort of the way they teach people, especially people who want to do this kind of work. We shouldn't be learning about wills and trusts in a state. I learned that for a state. I took the test. And I had forgotten it all now. But my first day of work, outside of law school, I went into a courtroom and was being asked to decide whether or not someone should go to jail because they might not return to court. I knew nothing about crime or behavior or poverty or what happens when you go to jail. In fact, lots of people I had worked around had never been to a jail or prison on their first day of work.
GLENN: Do you watch the show -- this is on Netflix.
It's about --
STU: BoJack Horseman.
GLENN: No. It's about the FBI, when they first started looking into serial killers, and everybody said to these guys --
STU: Oh, mind hunter.
GLENN: Yeah, mind hunter. You should watch it.
GLENN: They were called, you know, crazy and you're just trying to babysit people like Charlie Manson. And they're like, no, no. We need to listen to them and understand them because maybe we can catch them. Maybe we can change this behavior before it happens. And it wasn't popular in the 1970s. Do you kind of feel like that?
ADAM: Yeah. To me, it's crazy that formerly incarcerated people aren't employed by DA's offices.
Here we are, these very privileged people that have never been -- you know, maybe once in a while we've been the victim of a crime, and that makes us feel like we're in a better position to do these things.
But the most I've learned about the criminal justice system came from, like, kids that I prosecuted. This one kid who I asked him what he was thinking when he committed a serious armed robbery told me, do you actually think that I left my house, contemplating whether or not I would go to prison because I was going to rob these guys for money to give to my mother?
And he said to me one of the most profound things I've ever heard. He's like, you are in the land of the living. The criminal law is for the land of the living. We are surviving. Seventeen years old. Fifth grade reading level.
The most important education I ever got in the criminal justice system, and it wasn't from my 150,000-dollar education.
ADAM: And for those of us, again, who think we're better than because we go to college, we go to law school, we get these degrees, that we should be meting out justice and deciding what is safe for our communities, and not including people from those communities in those conversations is asinine.
GLENN: How do people find you, Adam?
How do people join you and find out more about -- I mean, you're on -- you know, your TED talk is popular and very, very good.
ADAM: Thank you.
GLENN: But if people wanted to reach out.
ADAM: Yeah. Prosecutorimpact.com is the website about my nonprofit. Now it's going around and doing trainings around the country of prosecutors. Adam John Foss my social media everything, and I want to hear from people. I want people to engage in this conversation. Because we need to have an even broader conversation -- you know, I enjoy the people bring up Christopher all the time. I use the Christopher story because I knew it wouldn't turn people off right away. But if we're being honest with each other about what we're going to do about mass incarceration, about the criminal justice system, we need to start talking about violent crime. We need to parse out serial killers and serial rapists from young black and brown men and women who are shooting and killing each other because of intergenerational poverty and trauma. If we really, really mean it as a country that we are embarrassed about this thing, then we have real conversations about that.
GLENN: And you're not looking just for a bunch of yes people, that just agree with you and butt kiss you. You want to be challenged.
ADAM: Yeah. I don't want to go -- I don't enjoy going to preach the choir and everybody -- standing ovation. That's great. That's not doing anything for the system.
ADAM: In fact, a lot of the rooms that I go to, a lot of people are cheering and rah-rah. As soon as the suggestion is, well, to solve this problem, you're going to have to give up a little bit of yours, conversation is over. So you talk about all the people who are like, yeah, close records. Close records. Close records.
As soon as the idea was put out on the air, that if we close records down, we'll put five jails in each of the burrows. And because of zoning, those jails will have to go where you live.
GLENN: Where you live.
ADAM: People are like --
STU: Expand Rikers. Expand Rikers.
GLENN: Adam, thank you very much. Adam Foss.
ADAM: Thank you very much.