Adam Foss: So I’ve sort of been listening back there to the talks and thinking about what I’m going to say up here. And how to really start this talk off. And I think that I’ll start with like “problem statement.” And the problem that drives me to work every day. Something that you might not all think about in your daily lives, but I’m going to challenge you to start thinking about it in your daily lives because regardless of whether or not you’ve ever been impacted by the criminal justice system directly, indirectly it’s impacting you every day.
And it’s not just because your taxes are different. It’s not because your tax money is going to pay for this system to operate in the way that it is operating—and I’m here to tell you that it’s operating very poorly. You’re impacted by it because the seats in this room that are not filled could be representative of black and brown bodies that could be here sharing their ideas. And having a lack of those ideas is impacting all of us.
The lack of diversity in relationships that we miss out from having people from those communities not here is impacting all of us. The lack of person power to get behind one of your ideas, to help you work on a project, to think about, to push back on, for a feedback loop. Those people not being in these seats is impacting you right now.
And it’s not because you are all amazing people—which you are—that separates you from getting to be here and them not here. It’s literally things that we took for granted when we were four, five, six, seven years old. Those folks are in communities right now where they cannot get out of. Or they’re sitting behind bars somewhere. And the difference between me being here and me being with the rest of them is that I won the lottery when I was three years old and I was adopted by white people. And I grew up with two white working-class parents in a white working-class neighborhood. Went to white working-class schools. And had all the opportunities in the world afforded to me not because my parents were super wealthy but because of the different ZIP code that I lived and I grew up in afforded me the opportunity that the people who don’t get to sit in this room never got.
Archaeologists have discovered that the first surgery took place about 5,000 years ago. They found the skeletal remains of a young man and they, because of the the perfect preservation of this body they were surprised to find that the body was missing its entire arm from the elbow down. And they studied the site and they realize that it hadn’t been disturbed it. It wasn’t decomposed. It just was missing. And as they looked at the bone they realize that it had been amputated with stone tools, and likely if anesthesia was used it was plant-based anesthesia, and the bone had actually started to regrow. And there you have your first surgery.
And as time progressed and as cultures were formed and this technology advanced, so too did medicine. You had the invention of the microscope. You had the invention of antibiotics. You had the proliferation of cities and what that meant for sanitation. You had germ theory. You had bloodletting. You had people drilling holes in people’s heads to absolve headaches. And now when you think about medicine the last thing that you think when you go get treatment for medicine is, “Am I going to be in the best care possible?” It’s something that we take for granted every time we go see our doctor. Anytime we have a medical emergency, or any time one of our loved ones has to go and get medical treatment, rarely if ever do we have to ask, “Is this person going to come home safely?”
And I want you to think about, imagine if one of your loved ones needed a heart transplant. And you walked into the operation room and you saw your loved one there splayed out on the table. And a brand new medical student with a stone tool was standing there above your loved one. You would be outraged. You’d be flabbergasted. You never would let it happen.
And that’s because of how directly medicine impacts us. But thousands of times a day, every day, this is exactly what we’ve allowed to have happen in our courtrooms. Like emergency rooms, people come from communities where courtrooms are, for a variety of reasons that have very little to do with actual crime. There are social determinants—just like our health—there are social determinants that dictate whether or not they’re put in the position where they commit crime. It’s biological reasons that people are driven to commit crime. It’s environmental reasons that people are driven to commit crime. The same reasons that you might have a heart attack are the same reasons that somebody might go out and steal. I’m stressed. I’m desperate. I don’t have the resources necessary to keep myself healthy and keep my family fed. I have to go out and steal. And thousands of people every single day come to courtrooms looking for help. Because they’ve been victimized, or because they’ve offended. And they’re looking for help.
And who do we have on the front lines when those people show up in our courthouses? Me. I was 25 years old when I went to law school. I was 28 when I came out. And I was a bit older than the rest of the kids in law school. And when I came out, I was equally qualified be a tax attorney or a civil litigator or an entertainment lawyer. And I just chose to be a prosecutor. No special training. No special equipment. No special tools. There I was, plopped into a courthouse in the middle of a neighborhood that I had never been to, meeting thousands of people every day who were there for help. And all I was given to help them was my life experience.
I was standing there with the stone tool of prison, and I was supposed to be solving problems with that stone tool. I’m not seeing the same reaction from the crowd as when I talked about the surgeon standing there with a stone tool. And that’s where we need to be defiant. You should be as pissed off, you should be as flabbergasted, that this is what is happening in our courtrooms everyday. Because we’re talking about the difference between life and death for lots and lots of people that you’ll probably never meet. Because they’re not here.
Servulo was 15 years old the first time I met him and he came into my courthouse because he had been arrested for flashing a fake gun at a bus driver on the MBTA. The MBTA is our beautiful transit system that while you’re here you should hop on a bus and see what it’s all about.
Don’t do that.
He came in and I learned some basic facts about Servulo. He was 15 years old. He was living in a Cape Verde neighborhood that’s riddled with gang violence. His mother didn’t speak English. His father was nowhere to be found and he had some brothers and sisters. That’s basically what I knew about Servulo.
I learned a little bit more from his defense attorney. He was in a special school Community Academy because he had been kicked out of most of the other Boston public schools that he could get into. His English wasn’t that great. And when I met him he looked like a 15 year-old boy that had done something stupid. I did not see before me this terrible criminal.
And as a result we sort of did what we were taught to do in that situation. There was a victim crime, it took place on a bus and so we have to ask for a bail. Because this is a crime of violence. This is what we were told to do. Not because it was going to improve public safety in the long term. Not because I was going to deter Servulo from committing another crime. It was just the thing that was in the operator’s manual when I started at the office.
Servulo was held on a one-dollar bail. One dollar bail. Which his mother refused to pay because she wanted to teach Servulo a lesson. And it happened a lot because when you’re a single mother in Boston and you have lots of kids who are acting up, sometimes unfortunately the court is a surrogate parent.
And so Servulo went to jail. And that’s where he stayed, for thirty days. He missed a month of school. And so when he came back out, whatever deficiency he already had in school was exacerbated by a month. We had done nothing to change his circumstances or his situation so Servulo went right back to the neighborhood that he was offending in. He went back and hung out with the same people he was offending with. And lo and behold Servulo committed yet another crime. And another crime. And another crime.
The reason that Servulo wasn’t held all of those extra times was because was because Servulo incompetent to stand trial. Servulo had an IQ of 53. And yet there we were, treating Servulo like he was an adult in the criminal justice system. Using the same methods and means that we use, and we have used for hundreds of years in the justice system to “treat” Servulo.
We took him out of his mother’s home, we put him in a foster home. He ran away from that foster home, we rearrested him. We held him back in jail. We took him out of jail, we put him in another foster home. He ran from that foster home. We caught him in the street, we arrested him, we put him in jail. We took him out of jail, we put him in another foster home. He offended in the foster home, we rearrested him, put him back in jail. All the while not paying attention to all the red flags that Servulo was trying to tell us. But that we weren’t listening to because we were trained with an operator’s manual from the signing of the Magna Carta.
My job description was written at the signing of the Magna Carta. As a prosecutor, your job was described as the person who would investigate the allegation of a crime, present that evidence to a finder of fact, and determine guilt or innocence. If I walked into a courtroom tomorrow and you asked me to prosecute a case, my job would be to investigate that crime, produce that evidence to a finder of fact to determine guilt or innocence. Nothing has changed since then. And unlike medicine, which changed with times and culture and advances in understanding about people in our communities, the criminal justice system functions the exact same way that it was invented.
The only reason I can tell you about Servulo’s trajectory is because I remember this kid because of how asinine I thought it was what we were doing. I don’t remember him because I’m able to go and tell you from any database what happened to Servulo on any distinct court date. In fact I can’t tell you how many black people I prosecuted last year. I can’t tell you how many of the them were black men. I can’t tell you how many of them were 18 to 25 years old. I can’t tell you what I did on any individual court date with any one of them. I can’t tell you whether those decisions were bad or good. I couldn’t tell you what happened to them six months after prosecution, nine months after prosecution, a year after prosecution. I can’t tell you where any of them are now. And these are the people that you are paying to stand at the front lines of the criminal justice system, your prosecutors.
I can tell you where Servulo is right now. Servulo is buried in the Forest Hill Cemetery. Because three weeks ago when he was 19 years old he was murdered sitting out in front of his friend’s house. Something that we knew when he was 14 years old, he was either going to be the perpetrator of or the victim of a homicide. And yet we just continued to treat Servulo the way that we’ve treated him since the signing of the Magna Carta. Nobody was upset about this. Nobody was defiant about it. Nobody wanted to do anything about it.
And that doesn’t sit well with me. And it shouldn’t sit well with you because you are paying for the criminal justice system to function this way. For the investors, the philanthropists, the givers in the room, would you donate to, would you would invest, would you take a risk on a business that operated on a budget of $80 billion a year with a 70% failure rate? Is that a good way to invest your money?
As global citizens, as citizens of this community, it’s incumbent upon us to defy the status quo, to demand more out of our criminal justice system. How am I doing it? When I made that shift from law school to the professional world, do you know what I did in those eight to twelve weeks between the time that I graduated and the time that I started my job? Do you think that I went to someplace and learned about the community that I was going to be prosecuting in? Do you think that I went and I learned about adolescent brain development, about trauma, about poverty, about risk, about restorative justice? Alternatives to incarceration that might be in that community? Do you think I did any of those things? Do you think I went to a prison, or a jail, just so I could experience that? Do you think that I went to a homeless shelter and sat in the homeless shelter and learned what it was, for one minute, to actually be homeless? Do you think that I went and met with a woman who was so addicted to drugs that she was willing to defile herself and sell her body for sex? Do you think I did any of those things?
No. I took a road trip with my band. And October 1, 2008 I walked into a courtroom and I started asking for people to go to jail. And this is what’s happening every day in courtrooms around this country, and you know what’s happened because of it? We are the most incarcerated nation on the planet. Two point three million of our citizens are in jail or prison. Seven million other people are on probation or parole, one misstep away from being in there with the rest. Seventy percent of people who are coming out reoffend within the first two to three years.
Ninety percent of people who were admitted to Boston Medical Center this year for violent trauma are court-involved, redefining the use of the word “victim.” One in three black women has a relative in prison right now. One in three black men born today will spend some time in prison in their lifetime. There are more segregated schools in this country now than there were on the eve of Brown v. Board of Education. There was more representation in Congress for African Americans, people of color, in the period of Reconstruction than there is now. In fact there are more African Americans in jail and prison right now than there were slaves on the eve of the Civil War. If you are not embarrassed by these facts and that each one of us sitting here is complicit in it by not being defiant, by not demanding more, by not making this part of our daily conversation, then I don’t know what I’m doing up here.
I created an organization called Prosecutor Impact so that people aren’t going touring around the country with their bands before they start going to make really important decisions. Prosecutor Impact is based on the idea that law school and high school and elementary school and all the other schools aren’t really doing the job they need to do to prepare us to be making the life or death decisions about people.
And more than that, I’m the end of the road. I’m the very end—the catch-all. The social determinants that drive someone to my courtroom happen before a kid is born. And I don’t say that to draw the obvious circle around how huge the problem is. I say that to express to you that we all have the opportunity, by shifting one thing about what we do, what we think, what we say, how we talk, who we talk to, what we talk about, to stop that from happening.
Imagine if the prosecutor, the first time they met Servulo instead of seeing a kid who pulled a gun out on a bus driver and therefore was a threat to our community, imagine if that prosecutor understood that Servulo came to the United States when he was 9 years old as a refugee from Cape Verde because of the abuse and trauma he suffered there. And that abuse and trauma started before he was even born yet. It was happening to his mother while he was in utero. And because of his transition from Cape Verde to the United States he never learned to read. And his inability to read and contemplate what was going on in his classrooms made him a problem in the classroom, not because he was dumb or incapable but because he wasn’t understanding what was happening.
Imagine if that prosecutor understood that that behavior problem, that issue in school, was the reason that he transferred from all those schools. It wasn’t because he was a bad kid. And that rejection at school perpetrated something, a self-fulfilling prophecy in his mind that he wasn’t worth the time of the adults who were around him and so he went on the street and he found love and support and connection in a gang. And that Servulo was the one always getting caught in the gang because he would do anything for these guys.
Imagine if the prosecutor knew that and could have just shifted Servulo’s group of friends from those guys to these guys. Surrounded him with prosocial peers, surrounded him with education, surround him with the mental health treatment that he needed that he wasn’t getting because nobody was paying attention to the fact that this little boy was telling us, “If you don’t do something I’m going to commit or I’m going to be the victim of murder.”
Can you imagine if the prosecutor knew that when he was 15 years old, and what we could have done with all the money, and all the time, and all the effort that we spent over the next five years trying to do the same thing to Servulo over and over again, banging him on the head with the stone tool, “Go to prison. Go to foster homes. You’re a bad kid.” Imagine if we could’ve done something different when he was 15 years old. Maybe I wouldn’t be up here talking about Servulo.
Maybe I’d be up here talking about Stanley, who when he was 16 years old committed a really violent armed robbery with firearms. And then, then I knew, then I understood that Stanley was telling me something. Stanley was telling me about the poverty that he lived in and that no amount of jail or prison could have kept him from committing the crime that he’d committed because his mother was sick from how much she had to work. That he was so motivated to make money that he committed this crime when he could’ve been so motivated to get a job. Which is what I helped him do. That his loyalty to his family didn’t just extend to his family, it extended to anyone that you put around him and so we enrolled him in an afterschool program with a baseball team. And that same loyalty that he had for his gang and for his mother and his family he had for his baseball team, and he created this really successful relationship, a really successful team that got him into college.
Stanley graduated from high school as a male of color in Boston. He’s like a unicorn, unfortunately. He went to college. He got engaged in college sports, college clubs. And he’s home this summer. We talk every single day. I’m the prosecutor that prosecuted him for armed robberies. And yet we talk every day now because Stanley is engaged in his life. Stanley’s not going to be back in the criminal justice system just because the decisions of one prosecutor. It’s not because I’m special. It’s not because I’m righteous. It’s because I used a different set of rules, a different set of equipment, a different set of technology that we all can play a part in providing to the people who go to work every day wanting to do a good thing.
And so it’s up to you. In fifty years from now when we’re thinking back on this time and how embarrassed we should be that we’ve let our country get to this point, how are you going to feel about what you did after you heard today? When we come back to Defiance, are we going to see these seats filled with more people that look like me, my brother Leland?
It’s incumbent upon us as the people who have the power, the privilege, and opportunity to be here, to do something different. That’s what defiance is. And for Servulo, for Stanley, for Willie, for Julian. For Adrian, for Alex, for Ace. For Bobby. For Kendall. For Cameron. For all the young men and women who I’ve met who I couldn’t help. But especially for the ones who just by doing something a little bit different I did, please think about what you’re going to do different. How you’re going to be defiant. Thank you.