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.

Further Reference

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