For former Suffolk prosecutor Adam Foss, the road to fame — well, in select legal circles, at least — began with a small-time thief named Christopher.
Foss was a new juvenile assistant prosecutor in Roxbury District Court in 2009. Christopher was a kid who had cooked up a harebrained scheme to rip off 30 laptops from Best Buy and sell them on the Internet. Believe it or not, he got caught.
And on the morning he was to be arraigned, Foss had to decide what to do with his case. “At the risk of sounding dramatic, at that moment I had Christopher’s life in my hands,” Foss told an audience in a TED talk last February. He discovered that Christopher was a high school senior who dreamed of going to college. In other words, he was a good kid who’d made a dumb mistake that threatened to tarnish him for life.
Instead of charging him with 30 crimes, Foss agreed to a deal that left Christopher without a criminal record. Most of the computers were recovered and returned to the computer chain they had been stolen from. Christopher also made restitution and served community service, but got out of the case without permanent damage.
“I didn’t think branding him a felon for the rest of his life was the right answer,” Foss said.
He told this story in a TED talk that has been viewed more than 1.1 million times since it was posted in March. His 15-minute lecture — “A Prosecutor’s Vision For A Better Justice System” — has helped propel Foss into the big leagues of criminal justice reform. In his talk, he called for prosecutors to use their discretion more judiciously, with a greater emphasis on building strong communities rather than locking people up.
It was a rare platform for an assistant local prosecutor, but Foss, 36, has hit a sort of lawyer’s lottery, one that has given him wide recognition and a chance to have an impact beyond just one courtroom.
It all began with an unusual invitation last October.
John Legend, the Grammy Award-winning singer and political activist, had been spending a couple of years educating himself about criminal justice — specifically, mass incarceration. He and his team decided to host a dinner in New York City for a group of prosecutors from across the country. Foss was invited. All of the others were district attorneys; he was the only assistant and one of the few people of color.
Foss made such an impression that he was asked that night to join Legend’s philanthropic operation, said Legend’s manager, Ty Stiklorius. Within weeks, Legend and Stiklorius had pledged an undisclosed but large sum of money to create a new organization called Prosecutor Integrity, with Foss at the helm. Their connections landed him the TED talk.
“We think Adam’s one of the civil rights leaders of our time,” Stiklorius said in a phone interview. “He’s going to go a long way toward effecting positive change.”
Foss had originally toyed with remaining in his prosecutor job, but eventually realized holding both roles would be untenable. He left Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office in April.
“It was great,” Foss said of his time in Conley’s office. “I would have to imagine that we have the most autonomy of the counties round us and the most discretion.”
Just how Prosecutor Integrity is going to work isn’t yet clear. Foss hopes it will help provide guidance for prosecutors on the wisest way to wield the power at their disposal. A-list consultants have been enlisted to help determine how to translate that idea into a working organization.
But for Foss, proof that he is on the right track came last summer. He was at an after-work social event when a vaguely familiar young man walked across the room. He hugged him, and thanked him. It was Christopher, who is now working in banking.
“You cared about me,” Christopher whispered to his prosecutor. “You changed my life.”