Criminal justice reformer Adam Foss speaks in Baylor lecture series

Adam Foss, criminal justice reform advocate and founder of several programs offering alternatives to jail time, spoke to Baylor students at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Barfield Drawing Room of the Bill Daniel Student Center. Photo credit: Liesje Powers

Clarissa Anderson | Reporter

There is a misconception in the United States and among prosecutors that jail is the only option when people are arrested. Alternatives to incarceration should be sought instead, Adam Foss, an advocate for criminal justice reform, told around 300 Baylor students at a lecture on Tuesday.

“What are alternatives to incarceration? My answer is everything,” Foss said. “Anything that doesn’t involve locking people up in a cage with other traumatized people is an alternative to incarceration.”

Foss spoke to Baylor students about mass incarceration at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Barfield Drawing Room of the Bill Daniel Student Center. The lecture was part of a lecture series by Baylor’s Academy of Leadership Development.

Some of the alternatives to incarceration Foss spoke of included community service, particularly while juveniles stay in school, and rehabilitation for addicts. Foss has begun programs that utilize these alternatives to incarceration and, in addition, has created programs to educate prosecutors on the alternatives because many prosecutors may not realize that there are other options. Alternatives to incarceration are ignored, Foss said, not due to money and corruption but more because of fear of the unknown and lack of initiative.

The main issues Foss finds with the criminal justice system are the disproportionate number of African-Americans in jail and how the system is wasting valuable resources that could instead be used to help the people prosecuted as well as the victims of crimes. Foss said that last year 11 million people were incarcerated in the United States for an average of 23 days at an average of $50 a night. That means an estimated $12.65 billion was spent on incarceration last year.

“One out of every four Americans has a criminal record, and one out of every three black men you see here today, across this country, will spend some time in jail,” Foss said.

The U.S. has the highest incarcerated population in the world, Foss said, with 2.3 million currently in prison. Even if the number was cut in half, it would still have the highest population. The country with the most incarcerated population after the U.S. is China, a country with 1.3 billion more people than the U.S.

Foss said that there is a new civil rights movement that everyone can be involved in, which means more than just paying attention to who your district attorney is. It also means that everyone can help, even if they are not directly involved in the criminal justice system. People in the education system, in psychology and in mentoring programs help reduce and reform incarceration.

“I think it’s time we stop waiting [for leadership], because the leaders of the next civil rights movement are right here [in this room]… It’s up to you. Let’s get to work,” Foss said.

Foss was originally scheduled to lecture at Baylor in September, but it was rescheduled because he was invited to meet with President Obama about his work.

Foss delivered a TED Talk that has been viewed more than 1.3 million times since February 2016. He was formerly an assistant district attorney at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office in Boston. One of the programs Foss has co-founded is a reading program in the same office to close the literacy gap of local elementary school children. He is currently working full time as the co-founder of Prosecutor Integrity, a nonprofit that urges prosecutors to reform the criminal justice system.

Prosecutor Integrity (PI) is rooted in the belief that prosecutors are the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system, with the unique ability to protect crime victims, improve community and public safety and to bring about transformative change in an effort to end mass incarceration,” the nonprofit’s website says.

The Academy Lecture Series intends to expose students to diverse issues in the world to make them better leaders.

“[We] hope that they gain a great perspective on being a leader in the world,” said Lizzy Davis, coordinator for Leadership Development. “Leadership is a wonderful thing, and we want all students that graduate from Baylor to go out and be worldwide leaders.”

The Academy for Leadership Development invited Foss to speak because he is a leader in reformation of the criminal justice system.

“He and his work are so fantastic. He’s just doing amazing things and really wants to help individuals succeed at life that maybe some other people have already given up on,” Davis said.

Davis recommends that students who missed Foss’ talk attend the next and last Academy Lecture Series talk of the semester, which will occur at 6 p.m. Nov. 8 in Barfield Drawing Room. The lecture will be by Kenton Lee, the Founder of Because International, an organization working on providing children in poverty with an adjustable shoe that grows.