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March 2019 , Page 05 

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Inside NACDL: The Loss of a Crusader for a New Paradigm

By Norman L. Reimer

Read more Inside NACDL columns.

Jeff Adachi (1959 – 2019) 

Photo by Robert Fujioka

On Jan. 11, 2019, Jeff Adachi accepted NACDL’s Champion of Public Defense Award on behalf of the office he led for nearly two decades, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office. Jeff’s office was recognized for the trailblazing work he led to challenge the tyranny of cash bail. He began his remarks with a statement that characterized his career as a defense lawyer and as one of the handful of elected public defenders in the nation, and the only one in California:

There is a new paradigm for public defenders and all criminal defense lawyers. It is so important that we no longer accept the status quo.

Exactly six weeks later, the profession lost one of its most eloquent and effective spokespersons for criminal justice reform. And NACDL lost a valuable member and Director. Jeff Adachi passed away suddenly on Feb. 22, 2019. His unexpected death came just weeks after he had been sworn in to serve his fifth term as San Francisco Public Defender. He was elected without opposition.

1_Adachi_quote_RickJones    2_Adachi_quote_DrewFindling 

Everything that Jeff did reflected his determination not to accept the status quo. When he learned that new organizations and young lawyers were challenging the very concept of bail in small cities in the South and Midwest, as he put it, “I thought, wow. I wonder if that could happen here in San Francisco.” And he made it happen. His office launched impact litigation, filed countless appeals challenging bail determinations, and began filing bail motions challenging the bail in every case in which an accused person could not post bail. His office nearly shut down the courts by filing more than 800 motions in about a week. These efforts led to the groundbreaking Humphrey case,1 in which the California Supreme Court will consider whether to strike down the bail system.

3_Adachi_quote_NinaGinsberg    4_Adachi_quote_MartinSabelli 

This most recent effort was one of myriad efforts that Jeff initiated to serve not just individual clients, but the larger community as well. He took seriously his role as an elected public official and saw his role as being an advocate for those whose lives were disrupted or destroyed by the criminal justice system. Nearly a decade ago, at a time when there was far less interest in reform than there is today, Jeff participated in a conference — convened by NACDL in partnership with the ABA and the Department of Justice — to brainstorm how to address the criminal justice crisis that disproportionately afflicts the poor in this country. The concept was to bring together pioneers in the field that had undertaken unique programs to break the cycle of despair that is all too often the hallmark of criminal justice in America.2 Jeff presented on “Clean Slate,” an innovative community outreach program he created that — at that time — had already assisted in securing expungement of more than 1,400 criminal records. He also described another initiative to use social workers to assist the children of incarcerated parents.3 

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Programs such as those described by Jeff at the NACDL conference are now increasingly prevalent throughout the country — a welcome development that was fueled by the fact that Jeff Adachi would not accept the status quo. Whether it was his determination to expose racism, fight zealously for adequate public defense funding, stand up for the rights of immigrants, expose police misconduct, or engage in countless other innovations designed to promote opportunity and improve the human condition, Jeff was always willing to advocate for the downtrodden. He was the quintessential defender for his clients and a public advocate for his entire community. No doubt Jeff Adachi’s lifelong crusade to fight injustice was influenced by the fact that his parents spent time behind the barriers of an internment camp during World War II. And his extraordinary contributions to his clients, his city, and his country are yet another reminder that the true greatness of the United States of America shines brightest when barriers fall and heroes rise.

8_Adachi_quote_SanFranciscoChronicle    9_Adachi_quote_GavinNewsom 

10_Adachi_quote_KamalaHarris    11_Adachi_quote_LondonBreed 

When he concluded his acceptance remarks at the award ceremony in January, Jeff Adachi left us with what sadly turned out to be his final call to arms to his colleagues: “It is an exciting time. Our work has just begun.” For Jeff, the work has now ended, all too abruptly. For those who remain, the work continues, and Jeff Adachi’s legacy will forever inspire those who abhor injustice to never accept the status quo.


  1. In re Humphrey, 19 Cal. App. 5th 1006 (2018).
  2. This conclave resulted in the publication of Indigent Defense Reform: The Solution Is Multifaceted, available at https://www.nacdl.org/indigentdefensereformreport.
  3. In 2009, Jeff Adachi received the Program of the Year Award from the California Public Defenders Association for his The Children of Incarcerated Parents 
About the Author

Norman L. Reimer is NACDL’s Executive Director and Publisher of The Champion.

Norman L. Reimer
Washington, DC

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