Jeff Adachi, the public defender of San Francisco, died suddenly at the age of 59 on February 22. His death sent shock waves through the many communities he associated with, including those fighting for pretrial reform. At PJI, we only knew him by name and reputation, and it’s still a loss we feel.
Adachi’s office took part in a bold strategy to push for bail reform in California by challenging all bail amounts in virtually all of their cases (282 cases in a 2-week period). Additionally, the office filed a habeas corpus petition in the case of Kenneth Humphrey, a man accused of stealing a $5 bottle of cologne, held in pretrial detention for 11 months because he could not afford bail; the result of the case was the establishment of what’s come to be known as a Humphrey hearing, which requires courts to examine an individual’s ability to pay and alternatives to money bail. The case is pending before the state supreme court.
Reading about Adachi’s life, these acts were true to form. The man who was told at one of his first felony cases that “You’re a potted plant. You’re a public defender. Your job is to go into the holding cell and get that man to plead guilty” looked beyond the individual cases and worked toward greater systemic justice. Adachi helped expose corruption and racism in the police department. He sought out ways for defenders to raise issues of racism and implicit bias in the courtroom to benefit their clients.
His office was known for aggressively defending their clients, while also offering supports. A special team helps people clear past convictions from their records, a process called expungement, allowed for by state law that was infrequently employed until Adachi started the program in 1998. The office expunged records for nearly 1,000 people in 2017, making it easier for them to find employment and housing.
All of this is to say – Adachi embodied what we know about most public defense attorneys for the indigent. That given the proper resources and caseloads and respect – San Francisco is the only jurisdiction in California that elects its public defender – indigent defense attorneys can make an enormous difference for both the clients – and the system.
Around the country, the news is bleak. A recent caseload assessment in North Carolina found that the state requires nearly 500 additional attorneys to effectively handle current public defender office caseloads, an increase of 73 percent over current staffing levels, in addition to significant increases in administrative and investigative staff. The report noted
“Across all adult criminal case types, attorneys recommended adjustments to activities performed early in the case. Attorneys consistently reported that they needed more time to conduct the initial interview, engage the client in the intake process, and obtain relevant documents. The panels also added time to connect clients with needed services, ensure clients’ needs are met during pretrial detention, review the client’s immigration status, and communicate with the client and family.”
A study of Nevada’s indigent defense services found that, nearly 20 years after the problem was first identified, the rural counties of the states still struggle to provide constitutionally adequate representation. The ACLU has filed lawsuits around the country over systemic Sixth Amendment violations.
Adachi’s work emphasized the point that defenders are absolutely critical to any policy or practice reform conversation at the local, state and federal levels. Whether his office was demonstrating that people should be represented by counsel at the first hearing at which their liberty is at stake (as recommended by the 2011 DOJ’s National Symposium on Pretrial Justice) or changing the nature of bail hearings, Adachi’s leadership reinvigorated and reimagined the role of defenders in pretrial justice. Defenders make a difference. Jeff made a difference.