I was recently made aware of interesting TED Talk by Adam Foss, a prosecutor with the Suffolk County District Attorney. In it, Mr. Foss speaks about our society’s idea of justice and the prosecutor’s role in seeing that justice comes to pass.
Interestingly enough, Mr. Foss touched on many points I myself have made during my legal career. First, and most importantly, the meaning of justice. Almost all of us leave law school knowing we want to “do justice” in our careers. In fact, when I ask new prosecutors why they chose prosecution as a career, the “to do justice” is the number one answer I get. Unfortunately, no one teaches us what justice really means. Does it mean racking up as many convictions as possible? Does it mean having judges impose lengthy sentences? If you ask a prosecutor and a defense attorney you will probably get different answers, and that is one of many problems in today’s criminal justice system.
So, what if we answered that question? That’s what Mr. Foss did, and in doing so, he found that compassion is a key component of justice. Instead of rushing to to punish an individual, Mr. Foss and his office sought to understand why that person was in front of them in the first place. Instead of seeing a criminal, they saw a person who needed help.
Why is that important? In America, we spend millions of dollars to prosecute individuals. We are the most incarcerated nation on the planet. That money, however, is better spent on the front end. As Mr. Foss saw firsthand, using State resources to keep people out of the criminal justice system was more beneficial to everyone involved. I am sure many of my colleagues remember clients who we knew did not deserve a felony but found no sympathy from the State. As a result, a one time mistake prevented our clients from receiving financial aid, from renting an apartment, from voting, and myriad other consequences that stem from a conviction.
I encourage everyone to listen to this TED Talk (it’s only 15 minutes) and think about the role we want our prosecutors to play in the criminal justice system. Conveniently, the Maricopa County Attorney position is up for election in just a few weeks. Before you cast your vote, see how the candidates answer the questions posed by Mr. Foss. In addition, ask yourself how you would want to be treated if you found yourself being prosecuted. I find most people cannot imagine themselves ever being prosecuted for a crime. When they are, they almost always want the same compassion and understanding Mr. Foss espouses. Listen to his talk and tell me what you think!