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  • The following are my opinions,

  • and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any particular prosecutor's office.

  • (Laughter)

  • I am a prosecutor.

  • I believe in law and order.

  • I am the adopted son of a police officer, a Marine and a hairdresser.

  • I believe in accountability and that we should all be safe in our communities.

  • I love my job and the people that do it.

  • I just think that it's our responsibility to do it better.

  • By a show of hands,

  • how many of you, by the age of 25,

  • had either acted up in school,

  • went somewhere you were specifically told to stay out of,

  • or drank alcohol before your legal age?

  • (Laughter)

  • All right.

  • How many of you shoplifted,

  • tried an illegal drug

  • or got into a physical fight – yes, even with a sibling?

  • Now, how many of you ever spent one day in jail for any of those decisions?

  • How many of you sitting here today think that you're a danger to society

  • or should be defined by those actions of youthful indiscretion?

  • (Laughter)

  • Point taken.

  • When we talk about criminal justice reform,

  • we often focus on a few things,

  • and that's what I want to talk to you about today.

  • But first I'm going tosince you shared with me,

  • I'm going to give you a confession on my part.

  • I went to law school to make money.

  • I had no interest in being a public servant.

  • I had no interest in criminal law.

  • And I definitely didn't think that I would ever be a prosecutor.

  • Near the end of my first year of law school, I got an internship in the Roxbury Division of Boston Municipal Court.

  • I knew of Roxbury as an impoverished neighborhood in Boston, plagued by gun violence and drug crime.

  • My life and my legal career changed the first day of that internship.

  • I walked into a courtroom, and I saw an auditorium of people who, one by one, would approach the front of that courtroom to say two words and two words only:

  • "Not guilty."

  • They were predominately black and brown.

  • And then a judge, a defense attorney and a prosecutor would make life-altering decisions about that person without their input.

  • They were predominately white.

  • As each person, one by one, approached the front of that courtroom, I couldn't stop but think:

  • How did they get here?

  • I wanted to know their stories.

  • And as the prosecutor read the facts of each case, I was thinking to myself, we could have predicted that.

  • That seems so preventable, not because I was an expert in criminal law, but because it was common sense.

  • Over the course of the internship,

  • I began to recognize people in the auditorium,

  • not because they were criminal masterminds

  • but because they were coming to us for help

  • and we were sending them out without any.

  • My second year of law school I worked as a paralegal for a defense attorney,

  • and in that experience I met many young men accused of murder.

  • Even in our "worst," I saw human stories.

  • And they all contained childhood trauma, victimization, poverty, loss, disengagement from school,

  • early interaction with the police and the criminal justice system, all leading to a seat in a courtroom.

  • Those convicted of murder were condemned to die in prison,

  • and it was during those meetings with those men that I couldn't fathom why we would spend so much money to keep this one person in jail for the next 80 years,

  • when we could have reinvested it up front, and perhaps prevented the whole thing from happening in the first place.

  • (Applause)

  • My third year of law school,

  • I defended people accused of small street crimes,

  • mostly mentally ill,

  • mostly homeless,

  • mostly drug-addicted,

  • all in need of help.

  • They would come to us,

  • and we would send them away without that help.

  • They were in need of our assistance.

  • But we weren't giving them any.

  • Prosecuted, adjudged and defended

  • by people who knew nothing about them.

  • The staggering inefficiency is what drove me to criminal justice work.

  • The unfairness of it all made me want to be a defender.

  • The power dynamic that I came to understand

  • made me become a prosecutor.

  • I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about the problem.

  • We know the criminal justice system needs reform,

  • we know there are 2.3 million people in American jails and prisons,

  • making us the most incarcerated nation on the planet.

  • We know there's another seven million people on probation or parole,

  • we know that the criminal justice system

  • disproportionately affects people of color,

  • particularly poor people of color.

  • And we know there are system failures happening everywhere

  • that bring people to our courtrooms.

  • But what we do not discuss

  • is how ill-equipped our prosecutors are to receive them.

  • When we talk about criminal justice reform,

  • we, as a society, focus on three things.

  • We complain, we tweet, we protest

  • about the police, about sentencing laws

  • and about prison.

  • We rarely, if ever, talk about the prosecutor.

  • In the fall of 2009,

  • a young man was arrested by the Boston Police Department.

  • He was 18 years old, he was African American

  • and he was a senior at a local public school.

  • He had his sights set on college

  • but his part-time, minimum-wage job wasn't providing the financial opportunity

  • he needed to enroll in school.

  • In a series of bad decisions,

  • he stole 30 laptops from a store and sold them on the Internet.

  • This led to his arrest

  • and a criminal complaint of 30 felony charges.

  • The potential jail time he faced is what stressed Christopher out the most.

  • But what he had little understanding of

  • was the impact a criminal record would have on his future.

  • I was standing in arraignments that day

  • when Christopher's case came across my desk.

  • And at the risk of sounding dramatic, in that moment,

  • I had Christopher's life in my hands.

  • I was 29 years old, a brand-new prosecutor,

  • and I had little appreciation for how the decisions I would make

  • would impact Christopher's life.

  • Christopher's case was a serious one

  • and it needed to be dealt with as such,

  • but I didn't think branding him a felon for the rest of his life

  • was the right answer.

  • For the most part, prosecutors step onto the job

  • with little appreciation of the impact of our decisions,

  • regardless of our intent.

  • Despite our broad discretion,

  • we learn to avoid risk at all cost,

  • rendering our discretion

  • basically useless.

  • History has conditioned us to believe that somehow,

  • the criminal justice system brings about accountability

  • and improves public safety,

  • despite evidence to the contrary.

  • We're judged internally and externally by our convictions and our trial wins,

  • so prosecutors aren't really incentivized to be creative

  • at our case dispositions,

  • or to take risks on people we might not otherwise.

  • We stick to an outdated method,

  • counterproductive to achieving the very goal that we all want,

  • and that's safer communities.

  • Yet most prosecutors standing in my space would have arraigned Christopher.

  • They have little appreciation for what we can do.

  • Arraigning Christopher would give him a criminal record,

  • making it harder for him to get a job,

  • setting in motion a cycle

  • that defines the failing criminal justice system today.

  • With a criminal record and without a job,

  • Christopher would be unable to find employment, education or stable housing.

  • Without those protective factors in his life,

  • Christopher would be more likely to commit further, more serious crime.

  • The more contact Christopher had with the criminal justice system,

  • the more likely it would be that he would return again

  • and again and again --

  • all at tremendous social cost to his children, to his family

  • and to his peers.

  • And, ladies and gentlemen,

  • it is a terrible public safety outcome for the rest of us.

  • When I came out of law school,

  • I did the same thing as everybody else.

  • I came out as a prosecutor expected to do justice,

  • but I never learned what justice was in my classes --

  • none of us do.

  • None of us do.

  • And yet, prosecutors are the most powerful actors

  • in the criminal justice system.

  • Our power is virtually boundless.

  • In most cases, not the judge,

  • not the police, not the legislature,

  • not the mayor, not the governor, not the President

  • can tell us how to prosecute our cases.

  • The decision to arraign Christopher and give him a criminal record

  • was exclusively mine.

  • 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.

  • These are decisions that prosecutors make every day unfettered,

  • and we are unaware and untrained

  • of the grave consequences of those decisions.

  • One night this past summer,

  • I was at a small gathering of professional men of color

  • from around the city.

  • As I stood there stuffing free finger sandwiches into my mouth,

  • as you do as public servant

  • (Laughter)

  • I noticed across the room,

  • a young man waving and smiling at me and approaching me.

  • And I recognized him, but I couldn't place from where,

  • and before I knew it, this young man was hugging me.

  • And thanking me.

  • "You cared about me, and you changed my life."

  • It was Christopher.

  • See, I never arraigned Christopher.

  • He never faced a judge or a jail,

  • he never had a criminal record.

  • Instead, I worked with Christopher;

  • 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.

  • (Applause)

  • After we finished hugging, I looked at his name tag,

  • to learn that Christopher was the manager of a large bank in Boston.

  • Christopher had accomplishedand making a lot more money than me

  • (Laughter)

  • He had accomplished all of this

  • in the six years since I had first seen him in Roxbury Court.

  • I can't take credit for Christopher's journey to success,

  • but I certainly did my part to keep him on the path.

  • There are thousands of Christophers out there,

  • some locked in our jails and prisons.

  • We need thousands of prosecutors

  • to recognize that and to protect them.

  • An employed Christopher is better for public safety than a condemned one.

  • It's a bigger win for all of us.

  • In retrospect, the decision not to throw the book at Christopher

  • makes perfect sense.

  • When I saw him that first day in Roxbury Court,

  • I didn't see a criminal standing there.

  • I saw myself – a young person in need of intervention.

  • As an individual caught selling a large quantity of drugs in my late teens,

  • I knew firsthand the power of opportunity

  • as opposed to the wrath of the criminal justice system.

  • Along the way, with the help and guidance of my district attorney,

  • my supervisor and judges,

  • I learned the power of the prosecutor

  • to change lives instead of ruining them.

  • And that's how we do it in Boston.

  • We helped a woman who was arrested for stealing groceries to feed her kids

  • get a job.

  • Instead of putting an abused teenager in adult jail

  • for punching another teenager,

  • we secured mental health treatment and community supervision.

  • A runaway girl who was arrested

  • for prostituting, to survive on the streets,

  • needed a safe place to live and grow --

  • something we could help her with.

  • I even helped a young man

  • who was so afraid of the older gang kids showing up after school,

  • that one morning instead of a lunchbox into his backpack,

  • he put a loaded 9-millimeter.

  • We would spend our time that we'd normally take prepping our cases

  • for months and months for trial down the road

  • by coming up with real solutions to the problems as they presented.

  • Which is the better way to spend our time?