Two activists, in back-to-back events at BC Law in late March, challenged students to rethink their preconceived notions and assumptions about social justice. One insisted that the best way to reform the system is to become, counterintuitively, a prosecutor. The other asked “what does justice look like?” and said if it is to be made visible to future generations, aspiring lawyers must begin to think transformatively—right now.
Adam Foss, a former assistant district attorney in Boston whose 2016 TED talk on criminal justice reform has had more than 1.5 million views, said that prosecutors almost single-handedly can stanch the flow of offenders into American prisons by taking a more nuanced view of the suspects brought before them. “No one has the discretion that a 25-year-old DA has on his first day,” Foss said. And what that prosecutor does with his or her discretion, can change everything.
Telling students that his goal was “to make you uncomfortable,” Edwin Lindo, a San Francisco-based advocate for progressive values, called justice a fiction, a construct of history and of a system fraught with wrongs dating to the colonization of the Americas. “If you can’t see it,” he said, “it doesn’t exist.”
The speakers were part of programming by BC Law’s Office of External Relations, Diversity, and Inclusion. Though each man expressed a different perspective on why the American criminal system is failing and what can be done to cure it, each is a well-practiced provocateur who asked tough questions and egged on the students to think in novel ways.
Are private prisons the problem? Are mandatory minimums? The police? Foss wanted to know.
“The reason it drives me crazy to be focused on police or sentencing laws,” Foss said, is that they do not possess the same power a prosecutor has to change the trajectory of people’s lives, to stand guard at the entrance to the criminal pipeline, to deeply question the causes for an alleged crime, and to provide alternatives to pressing charges. “The most impressive reform,” he argued, is turning people away” from a system built on a tradition that’s by now reflexive, not corrective.
“We cannot continue to use the blunt instrument of prison if we want to fix the problem,” Foss said, speaking particularly of young and new offenders involved in lesser crimes. What’s required are prosecutors who think creatively about the person whose fate they control, who take stock of the backgrounds they come from, and can direct them to proven programs and support systems where they might get another chance.
Lindo’s reform instruments of choice are smart thinking and activism. He spent two-and-a-half months in the protest camp at Standing Rock trying to halt oil from flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline. He went on a hunger strike in San Francisco that ultimately resulted in the called-for resignation of the city’s police chief after a spate of fatal police shootings of black and Latino men.
“There’s a moral currency you can carry. It’s time for us to create our own enlightened period,” he told the BC Law students. “We need a beehive of brilliance. Let’s not talk about reform. Let’s transform.”
Photograph, top, Adam Foss