Working to keep youths from the 'rabbit hole' of mass incarceration

Criminal justice reform advocate Adam Foss addresses probation and court employees, as well as members of the legal and law enforcement communities, on Wednesday, at Berkshire Family and Probate Court in Pittsfield. Foss' appearance was part of the Trial Court's effort to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within the court system.

PITTSFIELD — When former Suffolk County prosecutor and nationally renowned criminal justice reform advocate Adam Foss is traveling the world to speak at colleges, Fortune 500 companies or conferences, he tends to be one of very few black men in the room.

If there are other people who look like him, Foss said, they might be serving coffee, cleaning up trash, or be the hired musical talent.

"When I'm standing and looking around at these places of privilege and power, I'm left with two choices," Foss said Wednesday. "One, it's that they're so homogeneous because somehow I was born with a genetic deficiency that didn't make me as intelligent or ambitious or articulate or driven as all of the other people that are in this room. Or something else is happening."

Foss, a visiting senior fellow at Harvard Law School and 2017 Nelson Mandela Changemaker of the Year, spoke to members of Berkshire County law enforcement and legal communities about his "Vision for a Better Criminal Justice System." The community conversation, hosted at Berkshire Family and Probate Court, was part of the Trial Court's effort to promote diversity, equity and inclusion within the court system.

In his speech, Foss said that when he's in a room full of wealthy white men and women, he doesn't have to ask himself where everybody else is. When he's working in courthouses, prisons, impoverished neighborhoods, homeless shelters and juvenile detention facilities, all he sees are black, brown or marginalized people, he said.

"So, why is that disparity there? Is there something wrong with me that makes me so wild and dangerous and violent that the only place I can show up is one of those places, as opposed to these places of privilege and power?" Foss asked. "No, there's something else going on."

That something else is a "rabbit hole" of mass incarceration, he went on to explain.

Today, there are 2.3 million people in jail or prison and an additional 5 million on probation or parole, he said. One out of three black men born today will spend some time in jail or prison and one out of three black women today has a relative in jail or prison, he said.

Foss remembers the time he was able to dodge the rabbit hole that other young black men have not.

He was 19 when he was pulled over by a police officer, he said. Foss remembers handing the officer thousands of dollars he had earned trafficking marijuana from Pennsylvania to Boston.

He remembers the look on the officer's face, "one of contempt and disgust and frustration that I had become a statistic," Foss said.

But unlike so many young black men who were pulled over by an officer under suspicion of drug crimes, Foss didn't end up with a criminal record or serving years in prison for drug trafficking. Instead, Foss was able to go to college and law school.

He had a decorated career at the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office. He was asked by John Legend to give a TED talk about criminal justice, and now travels the world with celebrities and athletes to spread the message of reform.

How did he get so lucky?

"The police officer who pulled me over, pulled me over in my driveway. The police officer who pulled me over was a white man. The police officer who pulled me over was my dad," Foss explained. "After he took me down to the station, sat me in a cell for a little while, he took me home and he loved me, just like he did every other time I screwed up after that.

"Just like maybe, maybe, we need to love our young people when they come to the system, when they screw up," Foss added.

Foss was born in an impoverished neighborhood and spent his first few years of life in an orphanage. Being adopted by white parents in a working-class white neighborhood of suburban Boston was like winning the lottery, he explained.

The day that his father protected him from criminal prosecution on drug crimes, he gave him a "sword and a shield," Foss said. The shield protects him from the rabbit hole of incarceration and recidivism and the sword is "for the haters."

Years later, when working in Boston juvenile court, Foss was able to use that shield and sword to protect other kids.

In one case, a 16-year-old boy came in for stealing a cellphone. In what is sometimes referred to as "apple picking," teens in some neighborhoods would steal phones and turn them into stores for $80 a piece.

When Foss met the boy, he scolded him, explained the consequences that he could face, but released him.

"There I was, Mr. woke prosecutor. I said, 'Stanley, how dare you? This is bad. You could go to prison,'" he recalled. "But I'm woke. I'm not going to lock you up today."

A few months later, though, Stanley ended up back in court for stealing a Vespa. Foss repeated his lecture, but again sent him home.

When he saw Stanley a third time, though, he was in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. This time, he had been accused of robbing two men of motorcycles. His accomplice flashed what had looked like a firearm, Foss said.

"How did we go in such a short amount of time from apple picking to Vespa stealing to life felonies?" Foss said he questioned at the time. "So, I thought, why don't I just ask Stanley what happened."

Doing so, Foss learned about trauma at home. Stanley's parents had moved to Boston from the Dominican Republic to give him and his siblings a better education, only to find out that living in poverty in Boston was even more dangerous than where they came from.

His older brothers ended up in prison and his dad went back to the Dominican Republic. When he saw his mom struggling to stay afloat, he started stealing to support her.

Hearing this, Foss said, he could understand, but it wasn't a pass to break the law.

"Stanley looked at me and said, `Man, criminal law is for the land of the living. We're out here just trying to survive," Foss recalled. "The best piece of legal education that I ever got did not come from the $150,000 piece of paper that hangs on my wall. It came from a 17-year-old kid in an orange jumpsuit reading at about a fifth grade level."

So, this time, instead of preaching to Stanley, he asked him what he wanted to achieve. The teenager wanted to play baseball, graduate from high school and go to college. The prosecutor and the teen made lists on how to achieve these goals. Foss then worked with the teen throughout the rest of the time he was in school.

When Foss required Stanley to go to community service, he went with him. When he required him to go to an academic lecture, he took him.

Stanley has since surpassed the shortlist of goals he once handed the man who was supposed to send him to jail. After graduating from high school, Stanley went to college, where he made the dean's list. He also was the first college freshman to pitch in his school's championship game.

"They lost, but the feeling Stanley had that day was better than any gang could give him on the streets," Foss said.

When Foss won a prestigious award and was asked to have a celebrity he knew introduce him, he asked Stanley.

"Stanley Vargas took stage in front of 4,000 of my colleagues and gave one of the best speeches I've ever heard," Foss said. That was the day Foss learned that Stanley has plans to go to law school.

Speaking to the room of Berkshire County legal minds, Foss said that Stanley was just one of thousands of young people whose lives can be turned around when people in power stop trying to make decisions on their behalf, but instead ask what they need in place to succeed.

"Every single one of us has the opportunity to stick our arms into the pipeline and pull one of those young people out," Foss said. "Every single day we have the opportunity to do so, and we should."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.