How do we fix mass incarceration in the U.S.? It’s a system that puts 2.3 million Americans behind bars, far more per capita than any other nation. Thankfully, many solutions are coming to the fore and among them, one that focuses on point of high leverage: the role of the prosecutor. Ashoka’s Michael Zakaras talks to Adam Foss, founder of Prosecutor Impact, about the opportunity he sees and what he’s doing about it.
Adam, tell us about the decisions prosecutors make each day.
When we talk about mass incarceration, what we’re talking about are human beings who are incarcerated. And the only way that someone can be incarcerated is through a series of gates. The prosecutor stands at the front gate and is really the key actor. Every day, in every city and town in the U.S, prosecutors wield incredible power and discretion about whether to charge someone with a crime in the first place, whether to charge as a felony vs. a misdemeanor, whether to ask for bail, whether to request a prison sentence or community supervision, and much more. The decisions when taken together shape the landscape of our criminal justice system, have generational ripple effects in our communities, and drive the way we respond to survivors of crime..
You’re a prosecutor yourself — what problem did you see?
Having been someone on the front lines of the buildup of mass incarceration, I was disappointed to see reform efforts focus on prosecutors and law enforcement as bad actors or malintents focused on the numbers of people we locked up. I understood that I was a critical part of a broken system, processing hundreds of cases, servicing thousands of victims, with few resources other than incarceration . But I wasn’t doing this because I was a bad person. I was ill-equipped by my very expensive law school education and squeezed into a system that ran on tradition, legacy, and pomp and circumstance – as opposed to an ethos of adapt-test-improve like you see in medicine, science, aviation, or even the private sector. My school, professors, and classmates were amazing. But the curriculum required and regulated by the ABA was wedded to an outdated legacy incommensurate with the skills I needed to be a 21st Century prosecutor.
So this is where Prosecutor Impact comes in.
Yes, I started Prosecutor Impact to fill a gap in the education and training of prosecutors so they can wield their incredible power in more informed ways. I wanted to give aspiring prosecutors the knowledge and perspective to understand how trauma drives crime, particularly violent crime. I mean, prison is one of the worst interventions we could have invented for people suffering from addiction or mental illness, for example. I also wanted prosecutors to be able to meet all types of victims of crime, not just those who look like us or those we like so that we could respond to everyone’s needs better to prevent them from being harmed again or, worse, from them creating harm.
You take prosecutors through an intense immersion learning experience – tell us about this.
This is key. Our training is experiential, a significant departure from the conventional training most prosecutors receive. We built the curriculum with the help of scientists and designers and engineers – and it’s informed by those most impacted by the system. We launched in Philadelphia with incoming cohorts of new prosecutors to catch them before they get swept up in the culture of “this is how we do things here” — and now we are working with prosecutors offices around the country. What it comes down to is removing barriers for prosecutors to see people impacted by the system as whole human beings, how to treat them with full dignity and to make decisions more commensurate with the values we all hold as prosecutors: safety, accountability, and justice. In this way, it’s more an exercise in empathy and mindset shift than anything else. And we’re focusing on prosecutors so we can equip and inspire them to stay in the system that is very resistant to change due to history and inertia and tradition – and support them change it over time.
An example of an activity?
We take prosecutors into prisons and sit them down in a room with people serving long sentences and survivors of crime. Through facilitated dialogue, they get a better understanding of who the people were before the crimes, what their lives were like, what happened along the way, and what might have happened differently, including about the sentencing decision. And this works the same way with victims and survivors. Prosecutors never get to ask crime victims, “How are we doing? Am I serving you well? Is this what you need?” We believe these radically honest interactions and human feedback loops will revolutionize the prosecutor role and impact the broader system.
What do the attorneys say about such experiences?
They say, “I’m a better human being because I had this opportunity.” So while we obviously want these people to stay in the D.A.’s office and become great prosecutors, we know that whatever they go on to do with their lives, they’ll be better parents, neighbors, advocates, human beings. We’re all learning and growing from this work.
Take us to 2030, what will be different because of your work?
One, the number of people coming into the system will go down – many will be referred back to their communities rather than sent to prison. And because we’ll be divesting power back to the communities, we’ll start to see problems solved in a more efficient way. As for prosecutors, they will only be called on for certain types of offenses. All this will add up to safety going up in communities where it has been driven down. Why? Because mass incarceration isn’t just a problem because so many people are in prison – it’s a problem because in the name of safety and justice, we’ve created tremendous distrust in communities that are over-incarcerated and so people who are being harmed in those communities hesitate to or don’t reach out to those of us going into the system to serve them.
Do you find your work energizing?
It’s a good and important question — mainly because prosecutor burnout is a real thing. I mean, we are the worst on the planet at this. We have the highest prison population, we have one of the highest crime rates, we have the worst racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and the worst outcomes. People are recidivating at about 70% after incarceration. And it costs us a ton of money. You can look at this and think: what a tremendous problem, I don’t know what to do about it. But I see an opportunity. And as we build out Prosecutor Impact, I get to see prosecutors across this country and deliver something that they want, that helps them grow, do their job better, and feel part of an important change. In fact, lots of the prosecutors we work with say that they want to be out of a job — I find that really motivating and inspiring.
The article was origianlly posted at: %xml_tags[post_author]% %author_name% Source%post_title%