Rest In Power
August 29, 1959 - February 22, 2019
Jeff Adachi Detailed Bio
Indefatigable (adjective): Of a person persisting tirelessly. That word certainly applied to San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, whose ceaseless dedication to criminal justice reform and social change had a lasting impact on so many people in San Francisco and beyond. The public defender had just been elected to his fifth term when he passed away suddenly on Friday, February 22.
Jeff embodied this core principle: Equal access to justice for all. Today, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office is a beacon for client-centered defense for the entire country, and Jeff Adachi’s vision is what got us here. Quite simply, he developed an office that serves as a best-practices model for indigent defense.
As an attorney, Jeff Adachi was a visionary. He saw a world where public defenders were afforded the same awe and respect as any high-powered private attorney. He was aware that most public defenders around the country face impossible caseloads, little money, and the difficult job of defending people accused of terrible crimes. But for Jeff, everyone’s right to a criminal defense was the backbone of a democratic nation. Innocent people being wrongly accused especially drove him; he was the son of two Japanese-American parents who were interned during World War Two, and that deep sense of injustice infused everything he did.
He worked at the Public Defender’s Office for 32 years, 15 of which were spent as the elected public defender. He oversaw an office that handles over 20,000 cases a year and employs 95 attorneys and 80 support staff, all of whom share his dedication to representing the poor and voiceless. He himself has handled over 3,000 criminal matters and tried over 150 jury trials.
As the chasm between rich and poor grows with each year in San Francisco, the need for high quality legal representation for all remains crucial. Jeff knew the correlation between class, race, and the criminal justice system and he wasn’t afraid to bring those issues to the forefront. In San Francisco, there is plenty of opportunity to do just that. Though African Americans make up less than five percent of the city’s population, they make up more than 50 percent of the jail population. San Francisco also has a shameful record of police-involved shootings of unarmed black men. Poverty was at the root of every issue he tackled through advocating for mental health reform, addiction services, and homeless outreach. He didn’t want to just represent people in court. He wanted to fundamentally repair the broken systems from which so many of our clients emerged.
This could have been Jeff’s mantra: What we do matters. Keep going. In fact, he often repeated the phrase "We live to fight another day" after a particularly challenging trial or battle with the state legislature.
Jeff bucked the notion that the job of a public defender was just to act as an attorney for indigent clients. He saw people holistically and created programs that would make our client’s lives easier so that they could move on from their experience with the justice system. He was determined to remove impediments that held people back once they got stuck in the web of incarceration. He developed the Clean Slate program which has helped multiple clients clear their records and move on with their lives. He lobbied the Board of Supervisors to get rid of the burdensome fines and fees associated with their cases that indigent clients were expected to pay despite have little to no income. He championed bail reform. He created our immigrant defense unit. He created our pre-trial release program. When he passed away, he was working on eliminating the costs associated with making phone calls in jail and he had just penned legislation to tackle the problem of prosecutorial overcharging. He never stopped.
As a result, we all strive a little harder, push ourselves a little more, and most importantly, believe in ourselves as strongly as Jeff believed in us.
Jeff had a vision of a world where everyone is given a fair trial, children from disadvantaged neighborhoods have the same opportunities as those from affluent ones, a person’s mistakes don’t set a permanent road map for the rest of their life, and police and authorities are held accountable.
Jeff Adachi did his best to give his clients everything they needed to achieve the best possible outcomes, both in the courtroom and in life. In the same way, his legacy has left San Francisco and the nation with the same scaffolding. It’s up to us to keep working.