Speaking Truth to Power: Adachi Wins Prestigious Defense of Poor National Award

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Published on November 29, 2012 with 10 Comments

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. File photo by Luke Thomas.

By Tamara Barak Aparton

November 30, 2012

The National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) has selected San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi as its 2012 Reginald Heber Smith Award winner.

“The Reggie” celebrates the outstanding achievements and dedicated services of an attorney for contributions made while employed by an organization providing civil legal services or indigent defense services.

“In the quest to protect the rights of the poor and disenfranchised, Jeff Adachi’s work in public defense stands as a unique testament to the power of community engagement and the ability of a defender to act as a powerful agent of social change while still providing exemplary trial defense,” said NLADA President and CEO Jo-Ann Wallace. “Mr. Adachi continues to serve as an inspiration across the country to defenders striving to bring about effective representation for all people charged with offenses.”

Adachi, who is California’s only elected public defender, will accept the award Dec. 7 at NLADA’s 2012 Annual Conference in Chicago. The conference marks the beginning of a yearlong celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Gideon v. Wainwright. The landmark decision established that poor people accused of crimes are entitled to attorneys.

“It is a tremendous honor to receive an award from an organization committed to equal justice for the poor,” Adachi said. “The hardworking members of my staff share in this honor. They have built San Francisco Public Defender’s national reputation for providing extraordinary and successful legal advocacy on behalf of approximately 25,000 indigent people who are accused of crimes in San Francisco each year.”

NLADA officials noted that, since his election in 2002, Adachi has turned the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office into a top notch criminal defense firm that boasts a 50 percent win rate of all cases taken to trial. Under his leadership, the office has developed an aggressive training program by which its 92 attorneys and 67 support staff keep their skills sharp and current. As a result, those who cannot afford an attorney are provided competent, vigorous legal representation.

“Jeff Adachi’s work embodies the concept of ‘speaking truth to power;’ remaining steadfast in his commitment and mission while utilizing innovative means to share the cold realities his clients face. In this way, Mr. Adachi’s work does not just alter the lives of persons with limited means in San Francisco, but fuels the move for equal justice across the nation,” Wallace said.

Wallace added that Adachi has significantly advanced the cause of equal justice for both individuals and communities outside the courtroom as well. In 1998, Adachi founded the Clean Slate program, a free service that offers people with old convictions a chance to clear their records, which has led thousands of people over the past decade to find vocational, educational and housing opportunities. He has taken a holistic approach to reducing recidivism by providing a panoply of innovative programs to clients such as drug court, behavioral health court, a full service juvenile division and on-site social workers. Adachi also co-founded the Reentry Council, which helps coordinate services and assistance to individuals recently released from prison.

In 2011, Adachi exposed violations of constitutional rights by police who were entering residential hotel rooms without warrants. The revelations resulted in an ongoing FBI investigation, dismissal of nearly 100 criminal cases, the dissolution of a troubled undercover unit, and nearly a dozen problem police officers being taken off the streets.

He has also advocated reforming the police department’s crime lab, which came under fire in 2010 when a senior lab technician removed drugs from the lab for personal use.

Adachi has also worked to educate the public on the important of constitutional rights and the presumption of innocence. In 2009, Adachi produced a television public service announcement, “Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” which takes aim at racial profiling while illustrating for viewers the presumption of innocence.

Adachi and his office have hosted the city’s annual Justice Summit for the past 10 years. The televised one-day event has served to educate the public on important developments in criminal and juvenile justice. Adachi also founded the MAGIC programs, which support youth and family agencies in Bayview Hunters Point and the Western Addition neighborhoods.

In 2009, Adachi successfully challenged budget cuts to his office by refusing to take on new cases, rallying the public in front of San Francisco City Hall, writing numerous op-eds, and lobbying the Mayor and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Cuts to the office’s budget were eventually reversed.

NLADA officials also cited Adachi’s outspoken defense of civil rights for San Franciscans who do not have a strong voice in the public sphere. He has vigorously opposed unfair laws that criminalize homelessness and has successfully defended individuals who were barred from their neighborhoods due to being unfairly placed on gang injunction lists.


Comments for Speaking Truth to Power: Adachi Wins Prestigious Defense of Poor National Award are now closed.

  1. Jeff Adachi has been so thoughtful and accommodating every time I’ve called him for KPFA that I was especially motivated to report this on the KPFA Evening News last Sunday: http://goo.gl/8ld1S.   One Saturday back in April, after I’d been working on the Evening News, I stayed late to call him and record a conversation about Ross Mirkarimi’s case, for the following Monday morning, because that was the time we both had available.  I think we talked for almost an hour, from 7 to 8 o’clock, and he didn’t in the least begrudge giving up that much of his Saturday evening.  

    I’m sure that attitude goes a long way towards motivating his staff as well.

  2. ….he can get all the “awards” he wants….he’s still a prick….if he was so concerned about pensions….how come he didn’t just hand a check to the city, to cover his…since elected officials pay nothing….anyway,,,

  3. 🙂 🙂 🙂   FCJ needs some emoticons.  Or is there a button here somewhere that I’m missing?

  4. Has anybody else noticed that the Chronicle/SFGate hasn’t mentioned this even though the story is at least two days old? Weird.

  5. Very well deserved. Deep gratitude to Jeff and staff for all their work over the years. A true public ‘servant’ in the best sense sense of the word.
    Thanks also to “The Beard”, now we will have to fear him.

  6. Jeff’s good as they get,

        26,000 defenses of those who cannot afford an attorney.   Each year.  


  7. I agree with Stickla. He’s terrific public defender. As long as he stays right where he is, and doesn’t try to dabble in pension repeal with his billionaire buddies, we can all agree he’s a swell guy.

    Once upon a time, I would’ve happily supported him for higher office. But he destroyed his credibity and killed his chances for that, and rightly fell flat on his face when he tried. But hey, he can be public defender as long as he likes as far as I’m concerned!

    • Jeff sees that City Pension Obligations will prevent him from having adequate resources to do his job.  Real pension reform is needed.  Police and Fire Department personnel should not get 90%+ of their salaries when they retire in their 50’s.  Put a cap on pensions (say $100K), and don’t use overtime as a basis for calculating pensions.  Increase the retirement age to 62, and discount pensions that start earlier.  That would be a good first step. 

      • Nah, we can afford pensions. What we can’t afford is war and prisons, miniscule capital gains taxes, and highest marginal rates on the rich in the mid-30s. Rather than race to the bottom with the private sector, we need to raise revenue to get everyone’s earned benefits to the level that city employees have.

        I don’t have a problem with the pension structure per se. I do have some issue with salaries. Particularly police and fire, and a few upper managers. Retiring in the 50s and getting 90% would be fine by me, but I don’t see why we need to pay some 21-year old kid with an associates degree and fresh out of the police academy 100K/yr. Or that same kid making 250K as a Lieutenant 20 years later. I wouldn’t mind slashing police salaries to what they pay in Manhattan, and maybe firing half the mayor’s staff. But even that waste is a drop in the bucket compared to the taxpayer money this city wastes on “public-private partnerships” (crony capitalism by another name).

        Jeff just isn’t making these big-picture connections, which is why he doesn’t deserve to go anywhere near higher office. But I do like his very liberal views on criminal justice. That’s one narrow issue that he has a good grasp on. So I’ll keep voting for him as long as he wants to be PD.

  8. Adachi is a treasure, and it’s nice to see him getting this recognition after being demonized for years by the DA, the Mayor’s Office, the SFPD, and “moderate” Supervisors. He richly deserves the award.