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A Question of Justice

December 06, 2017

Adam Foss addresses the Lasell College community.Former prosecutor Adam Foss has seen firsthand how the justice system can favor convictions and "cases won" over criminal character reform, particularly for young people of color. Yet, he also sees great potential in how both prosecutors and the public can institute change.

Foss delivered the closing keynote at Lasell's Connected Learning Symposium on December 5. The former assistant district attorney for Suffolk County's juvenile division is the founder of a number of justice reform initiatives, including Roxbury CHOICE, a program that offers young adults the opportunity to pursue educational goals over incarceration, and Prosecutor Impact, a nonprofit aimed at training prosecutors to reframe their role and perspective. Foss was recently named the 2017 Nelson Mandela Changemaker of the Year. In his remarks, he wasted no time encouraging the community to contribute to conversations around mass incarceration and justice reform.

"When I look at all of you, I see the next civil rights leaders of our time," said Foss. "You have the power, the shield of privilege, and the opportunity to help stop the pipeline of circumstance that lands so many juveniles in correctional facilities."

As a prosecutor, Foss struggled with the expectation to convict young, nonviolent adolescents of felonies on the same level as violent serial criminals. At the time of his presentation, there were 2.3 million individuals in jail or prison, with African Americans comprising 60 percent of that population. Of the juveniles currently in jail or prison in Massachusetts, he said 75 percent have experienced at least three encounters with the Department of Children and Families before the age of 3. This context frames his current work, where Foss seeks to find the humanity, lessons to be learned, and actions to be pursued based on these statistics.

Foss cited the work of Lasell seniors Armando Machado Jr. '18 and Alex Moule '18 as examples of how students could take action on these issues. The pair met Foss through Moule's internship at Partakers' College Behind Bars, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing skills and education for local inmates. In bringing Foss to Lasell, Machado and Moule hoped to advance communal conversations and support around such substantial topics.

"Justice reform can bring people together," said Machado. "It all starts with education and collaboration at events just like this."

"Mass incarceration may not affect everyone on campus personally, but it's important for students to be aware of the issue," Moule said. "We spend our days listening, learning, researching, and receiving a grade for those efforts. The second we only find satisfaction in getting credit for our work, we miss out on the bigger picture. We need to leave the classroom and events like this one with motivation and ideas to create change."

For Foss, the solution to mass incarceration and justice reform starts with the general public.

"We all need to ask ourselves: Will I be the person who just let things happen? Will I be the person who puts blame on the system? Or will I be the one committed to taking action through civic engagement? You can vote. You can write letters. You can start conversations in your communities, or work with struggling children, or meet with non-violent inmates to understand their perspective and outlook for the future. It is your role to amplify the voices of those lacking the privilege to be heard."