A Prosecutor’s Vision for a Better Juvenile Justice System

Posted by Sophie Karpf

Apr 11, 2017 8:50:18 AM

He was a high schooler who made a mistake, and Adam Foss gave him a second chance

Christopher was an 18-year-old, high-school senior who dreamed of going to college. Trouble is, despite working part time, he didn’t have enough money for tuition. What’s a kid to do? Christopher ended up stealing 30 laptops from a local store and selling them on the internet. He was arrested and charged with 30 felonies, one for each device.

When this case landed on Adam Foss’ desk in 2009, he knew he had a decision to make. As a criminal prosecutor, the decision to arraign Christopher, and what to arraign him for, was his and his alone.

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“I would choose whether to prosecute him for 30 felonies, for one felony, for a misdemeanor or at all. I would choose whether to leverage Christopher into a plea deal or take the case to trial, and ultimately, I would be in a position to ask for Christopher to go to jail,” Foss told a packed crowd from the TED stage in January 2016.

To arraign or not to arraign

What he chose to do changed the course of Christopher’s young life.

Foss did not arraign him. This meant Christopher never had to see a judge or a jail, and that he didn’t have to carry a criminal record with him for the rest of his life. But it did not mean he got off scot-free.

Instead, Foss worked with him. “First on being accountable for his actions, and then, putting him in a position where he wouldn't re-offend. We recovered 75 percent of the computers that he sold and gave them back to Best Buy, and came up with a financial plan to repay for the computers we couldn't recover. Christopher did community service. He wrote an essay reflecting on how this case could impact his future and that of the community. He applied to college, he obtained financial aid, and he went on to graduate from a four-year school.”

Six years later, Christopher manages a large bank. Would he have been able to attain this success with a 30 felonies and a criminal record? Maybe. But he would have had a lot more standing in his way. A criminal record would have made it harder for him to get a job, and without a job, he wouldn’t have been able to afford an education or stable housing. Without these supports in place, he would be more at risk for reoffending and falling deeper into the justice system.

How can we help others like Christopher in the juvenile justice system?

Christopher’s story is not unique. Thousands of young men and women are arraigned and given criminal records for similar crimes instead of getting an opportunity to redeem themselves and take steps forward. 

Sending young people to prison is expensive—$109,000 a year per young person in some states—ineffective—recidivism rates can be as high as 60 percent—and ultimately a disaster for public safety. But teaching youth to take accountability for their actions, to repay the community and how to learn skills to be active contributors to society, well, that benefits us all. 

Topics: Juvenile Justice Reform