Adam Foss

This description of Adam Foss's work was prepared when Adam Foss was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2019 .


Adam Foss founded Prosecutor Impact to repair our criminal justice system by shifting the culture and norms among prosecutors across the United States.

The New Idea

It is well documented that the United States has a mass incarceration problem with 2.3 million individuals behind bars; more than any other country per capita by far. But, there are very few solutions that incorporate the outsized role that prosecutors play in maintaining the system.

Adam Foss is leading a prosecutor reform movement that focuses on the thousands of young, inexperienced prosecutors who make decisions each day that contribute to the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. At its core is an intensive training experience tailed to incoming prosecutors in key markets – first tested in Philadelphia – that emphasizes the real-life consequences of their prosecutorial decisions, no matter how small those decisions seem. This includes a curriculum designed with IDEO and a range of immersive experiences over several weeks meant to bring empathy and context to the justice system and ultimately create a mindset shift so fundamental that prosecutors begin to understand crime and violence in a different way – not to mention how to treat it. At its core the idea is about culture change: driven by a belief that you can change an incredible amount with effective interventions that have less to do with what is written on paper and everything to do with the human beings in control.

Prosecutor Impact has run trainings in over 19 jurisdictions now and is focusing on deep-dives across major markets over the next 3-5 years where 40 percent of our prison population comes from, and where the organization can impact more than 1 million cases by 2022. Each prosecutor that is trained, meanwhile, gains access to a collaborative network of peers across jurisdictions, and is then expected to train incoming prosecutors and uphold a new culture that can eventually replace the existing one.

The Problem

With 2.3 million people imprisoned, the United States incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country in the world. The human and financial costs of this reality are extraordinary.

Research overwhelmingly shows that incarceration not only fails to keep us safe, but it also fails to address many of the underlying issues that lead to crime – one of the reasons why the system has a 70 percent recidivism rate. This currently system also costs taxpayers more than $80 billion a year and hundreds of billions more when contemplating the costs of the court system and law enforcement, not to mention the social costs to families and communities in lost tax revenue, reduced participation in the economy, and the long-term health care costs of those in poverty.

While there is an active conversation taking place across the country today about criminal justice reform in the United States, very few reform efforts focus on the most influential actors in the criminal justice system and thus the true lynchpin for systemic change: criminal prosecutors. While new criminal prosecutors receive training in law school, and as they join new offices, they are frequently unprepared to fully understand and address the needs of the communities they serve and to appreciate the root causes of crime – things like trauma, poverty, homelessness, and mental illness. This is despite the extraordinary discretion over the filing and charging decisions that are made for every single case, and individual, that is involved with the criminal justice system. Particularly during the time between arrest and a potential conviction, prosecutors wield tremendous power, and possess exceptional latitude, to determine the fate of millions of men and women who pass through the justice system each year. And yet path dependency and complacency with a culture of “how we’ve always done things” which prioritizes efficiency and numbers of cases won makes it difficult for even the most forward-thinking prosecutors to think and work outside the box.

The Strategy

Prosecutor Impact seeks to improve the criminal justice system by working with District Attorney’s Offices and their prosecutors across the country to ensure thoughtful, creative, and empathetic approaches to sentencing that maximize family and community stability and public safety. To do this, PI utilizes a three-pronged approach: (1) Formal training, guided by Prosecutor Impact’s curriculum, which includes a combination of classroom lectures from experts in the field, interactive case studies, and deep experiential learning opportunities; (2) Organizational change management support designed to help jurisdictions and their teams address structural and cultural barriers; and (3) Continuing education via a national network meant to reinforce learning and support prosecutorial reform:

1.Formal Training & Prosecutor Impact’s Curriculum: Prosecutor Impact built a modular curriculum together with the design firm IDEO to span up to six weeks of trainings prior to new prosecutors beginning their jobs. The curriculum is highly adaptable and may include or be integrated with orientation sessions and operation training led by local partners. Prosecutor Impact works closely with local offices and leadership teams in advance of any engagement to determine the appropriate scope, sequence, timing, and prioritization of modules based on the local circumstances and needs of each office. Each training includes at least four immersive experiences that begin on Day 2: going into prison for a day, spending a night at homeless encampment, shadowing students at a local underperforming school, and taking a tour of under resourced neighborhoods. In addition, incoming prosecutors regularly meet with people suffering from mental health issues and addiction, victims of crime, and young people who have been through the system. Among other things, prosecutors ask these people: how does the justice system work for you? What’s more, trainees meet with dozens of community-based organizations charged with serving people who come through the system on the many human needs that often drive people into the system in the first place. The six weeks culminate in a capstone project in partnership with a community organization that is presented to the full office.

By the end, young prosecutors become both aware of -- and learn how to use -- tools that are never included in the typical prosecutor toolbox. And perhaps most importantly, they gain a new perspective on “this is what winning looks like.”

2. Organizational & Culture Change Planning: Given the cultural and mindset shifts that Prosecutor Impact’s work seeks to encourage, Adam is mindful and aware of the potential for dissonance that the work can also create. He also understands that all offices look and function in very different ways – sometimes for reasons that are perfectly rational, and sometimes not. With this in mind, one aspect of Prosecutor Impact’s work is focused on helping partners to identify and address the larger org/operational, culture, and systems questions that their trainings often help to surface. This work often looks and feels different from office-to-office. As part of every engagement, Prosecutor Impact spends time working with the appropriate people at a given office to determine exactly what this should look like in a given community and specifically, what steps they need to take together – before or after the formal training – to ensure that the learning outcomes, mindset shifts, and new behaviors permeate throughout offices and are ultimately sustained.

3. Continuing Education & National Network: With all partners, Prosecutor Impact ensures a series of ongoing touchpoints both to reinforce the things they hope to convey in the trainings and to help prosecutors address issues and questions that invariably arise over time. This begins with a PI person on the ground who stays for the first 6 months to mentor, observe, and collect information. In addition, PI conducts a series of monthly in-person and virtual follow-up sessions with prosecutors and office leadership. Finally, incoming trainees join a network of peers together with seasoned prosecutors across the U.S. who can provide support outside of a supervisory role.

The timing of Prosecutor Impact is strategic: catch incoming classes of new prosecutors before they get swept up into the existing culture and norms. As Adam notes, the moment they go into real life situations while learning from the habits of existing prosecutors, you’ve lost them. There is tremendous conforming behavior for many reasons that have little to do with job performance or even protecting public safety, and much to do with promotions and a culture of not disturbing the herd or questioning the chain of command. And yet the irony is that it’s the newest prosecutors that are frequently dropped right into arraignment sessions that are the most critical in determining sentencing, short-term detention of bail, and the many collateral consequences that come from dozens of cases processed each day.

Adam’s theory of change is that by catching prosecutors early, you can redirect them permanently on a different path with profound implications for the criminal justice system as a whole. The results are many fold and even begin to take shape before the training period ends. It starts with a new perspective on crime theory: a recognition that a huge majority of the people who come into the system do so because they need something and because they are in survival mode. There are very practical changes too. For example, Boston was seeing thousands of arrests for deviant behavior in schools which led to expulsions and more crime later in life (not to mention that the arrests were disproportionately young men of color). With PI, prosecutors set out to work hand-in-hand with schools to drive down the number of school-based arrests, not just because it was the right thing to do, but because it also meant prosecutors could spend less time on the kid who threw the eraser and more on the kid who picks up a handgun and shoots someone. How people are processed once they come into the system begins to change too. Because prosecutors spend considerable time out in the community, they are able to rely on more diversion options, and they can get specific about their referrals which dramatically increases the likelihood of success. For example, rather than direct someone “get an education”, a prosecutor can direct someone to “go to YearUp on Wednesday.” Or they can direct an addict to a specific free treatment facility.

Prosecutor Impact is entering a major growth phase guided by a four-part plan they believe will help them impact more than a million individual cases in the next five years. The first two phases will be primarily devoted to laying the groundwork for impact and helping PI to prepare for large-scale national implementation in 2019. Adam and his team will focus on things like infrastructure development, strategic and operational planning, and relationship building – particularly with District Attorneys who have a more progressive outlook and have demonstrated a willingness to move their teams in a different direction. During this time they intend to work in more than a dozen communities across the country. During the second two phases, PI will build on lessons learned and look to find efficiencies in its work in order to scale. The goal is to make this kind of intervention the gold standard that becomes part of how prosecutors are prepared for their jobs. Beginning in 2019, together with interested Silicon Valley firms, Prosecutor Impact will develop new, more comprehensive metrics for safety and prosecutorial success that include the complexities of things like stable housing, healthcare, bail fees, and more.

All the while Adam is playing a public role to re-frame the narrative on criminal justice reform and help draw attention to the outsized role prosecutors play in maintaining the status quo. This includes seizing a key moment in the U.S. when dozens of reform-minded District Attorneys have been recently elected, many of whom are under pressure to implement measurable changes. But Adam is also adept at making the case to the more skeptical middle: telling them, first, that it’s very easy to be better than we are doing today, and second, that the cost savings from prison diversion will more than make up for the cost of investing in young prosecutor training. As Adam puts it, “This is diverting money you are already spending. This is not charity.”

Prosecutor Impact’s FY19 budget is $3.2M – funded by foundations and private individuals – and is nearly triple that of our FY18.

The Person

Adam was the first person he knew who went to law school. The unfamiliarity with that environment made his first year a tough one, and he missed a lot of opportunities that his more successful classmates took advantage of including making plans for summer employment. A few months before the end of first year a professor asked Adam if he wanted to take an internship at a local criminal court clerking for judges. Criminal law was not on his radar, but he took it out of necessity. That decision opened the door to the rest of his future.

From the first day of that internship, Adam had a front row seat to the criminal justice system. What stuck out to him on the first day, and everyday thereafter, was the disparity with which the system treated poor people, particularly people of color. Just eight years prior he stood in the cross-hairs of the criminal justice system for dealing drugs, but because he came from a middle-class household and had white parents, he walked away from that situation unscathed. Yet everyday he saw ordinary people being criminalized and incarcerated for being poor, addicted, or mentally ill, and many well-intentioned people standing around participating, even though it was glaringly obvious that the system wasn’t working.

Recognizing that to fix the system, he needed to be in it, he pursued the role with the most power: the prosecutor. On the first day of that job, Adam realized two things: he grossly underestimated the power that new prosecutors had, and law school had grossly underprepared him to wield that power. The courthouse was full of trauma, addiction, poverty, implicit biases, and violence; but he learned nothing of those things before he began at the DA’s office and learning on the job was at the expense of thousands of families. It was unacceptable and yet explained many of the reasons why mass incarceration remains entrenched in the United States, even when it seemed everyone was trying to do the right thing. To fix that, he built Prosecutor Impact.