The Adam Foss Interview

Taylor Smith interviews Boston-based prosecutor Adam Foss.

Adam Foss Adam Foss photographed by Sadie Barnette.

By Taylor Smith

Name: Adam Foss
Occupation: Prosecutor, Co-Founder and President of Prosecutor Integrity
Hometown: Boston
Current City: Boston
College: UMass Amherst, Suffolk Law School
Age: 36

Boston-native Adam Foss caught our attention with his February 2016 TED Talk, in which he calls on prosecutors to exercise their “virtually boundless” power more responsibly, particularly with respect to defendants facing criminal charges in juvenile courts. Foss is the former Assistant District Attorney in the Juvenile Division of the Suffolk County Massachusetts District Attorney’s Office and has seen first-hand the dividends that more considered approaches to prosecution can pay. In the TED talk, he speaks at length about 18-year-old Boston senior Christopher, who stole 30 laptops and sold them in a desperate attempt to make money for college. Instead of arraigning Christopher, Foss opted to work with him on a financial plan to repay the store, an essay about the impact the trial had had on him, and community service. Six years later, Foss encountered Christopher—now a college graduate and a manager at a large bank—at a local gathering for professional men of color.

Foss’ compassionate approach to prosecution draws upon his own past, including a minor run-in with the law: “When we go into the job we rely on certain life experiences, and for me that includes my interaction with the criminal justice system,” he says. “And it also includes my lack of interaction with the criminal justice system. And by that I mean, I did a lot of things that these kids are being put through the ringer for and I didn’t go to court or jail for any of them and I managed to succeed in life. So we really need to take a look at [how we intervene] when kids are committing crimes at a young age.”

Troubled by what he views as the gaps in his own legal education, Foss is intent on training the next generation of prosecutors to do their jobs in a way that both fosters the growth of productive citizens and protects community safety. To reach this goal, Foss has co-founded the non-profit Prosecutor Integrity. Still a few months out from operationalizing, the organization stemmed from Foss’ desire to convert the words from his TED Talk into actions. Ultimately, he hopes to see prosecutors “wielding their power in a much more efficient, smarter, solution-oriented way than how we do now, which is just sort of throwing rocks into the ocean.” RoomZoom spoke with Adam about his path to success in the legal world and his future plans for Prosecutor Integrity.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?

I worked as a paralegal at a business litigation firm in Boston. I landed it the old fashioned way, lots of applications to places. A few call backs. A few interviews and then I was hired.

Can you describe your path to where you are now professionally? What traits and steps taken helped you get there?

There was no path. There were leaps and twists and turns and ups and downs. Lucky breaks and bad omens. I always sought the advice of mentors and friends. I never burned bridges. I took risks and when they blew up, I learned from my mistakes. Maintaining a level head is important even when you think the world is going to cave in.  I didn’t compromise my moral compass for external acceptance and I treated the people in support/administrative/maintenance positions with more reverence than any of my supervisors. They deserved it much more.

What is the best advice you’ve received in your legal career?

That my job started after 5. I’m sure it is not something you want to hear about other legal jobs, but when I heard it I was sitting in my first week of orientation at the DA’s office. The trainer meant that it was as important that we were outside in our communities as it was to be in our courtrooms and I took it to heart. It paid dividends professionally and personally.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your career thus far?

Treat everyone with compassion and understand where they are coming from. This is true of everyone and it’s hard to maintain that attitude given the adversarial system, but it goes a long way.


What advice would you give law students and aspiring prosecutors?

Come to this job because you want to rebuild the criminal justice system. I heard lots of reasons to go to the DA’s office when I was in law school: You get a lot of trial work, it’s a great stepping stone to political office, you get the catch the bad guy… This job is not about you. It’s about the people we serve and if you serve with them first in mind, you will reap all the reward (except a salary) that you can imagine.

You mentioned in your TED talk that as a law student you didn’t really learn what justice was, and you felt no one did. How would you recommend law students supplement their education so that they do come out with a better understanding of justice?

Spend as much time as you can in environments you have not previously been in. Go to a jail and talk to incarcerated people, go to a homeless shelter and meet folks in the grips of poverty, go to a neighborhood meeting in a housing development. Go to a courthouse and watch what happens. Ask questions. Go to a domestic violence victims’ shelter. Take a ride-along with the police. Intern. Volunteer. While you are doing those things, ask yourself whether what you see fits with your definition of justice. Then be prepared to view them through the lens of someone else’s definition of justice because of their life experiences.

Do you have any favorite books you’d recommend to anyone looking to learn more about mass incarceration and improving our criminal justice system?

There are of course the usual suspects: The New Jim Crow, Just Mercy, Let’s Be Free. A book that I would recommend for folks in the criminal justice system to read is the Age of Opportunity by Dr. Laurence Steinberg, which is a great synthesis of the recent gains in adolescent brain science. We are in a human behavior business and we operate as impersonally as possible without any understanding of human behavior. This book goes a long way to explain why people (yes, young people, but it translates) behave the way they do given a variety of external pressures.

What is a typical work day like for you?

I have never had one of those.

What motivates you?

That we are in an era where the groundswell of support behind fixing the system is so huge that it might budge this perpetually inert problem in meaningful ways in the very near future.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Helping young people and seeing them find value in themselves.

What advice would you give to someone looking to start a nonprofit or secure 501(c)(3) status for their organization?

Get a solid team around you and be sure to ask for help.

10 years down the road, what do you hope to have accomplished with Prosecutor Integrity?

That we are out of business because this level of training and proximity [i.e., a more in-depth understanding of those most affected by inequalities in the criminal justice system] becomes the national standard for prosecutors’ offices.