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Public Defender No. 1: Jeff Adachi's Revolution 

Wednesday, Jun 10 2015
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"Next case up was an African-American young man, 19 years old, for selling $20 worth of rock cocaine. I don't remember who spoke for him, but it probably wasn't much. There was no family in the courtroom. He got three years in prison: Boom! I just watched that, and I was like, 'Wow.' And nobody blinked."

Adachi was in the office for a meeting of Public Defenders for Social Change, the organization he founded to shake up the system and force judges and prosecutors to blink. Line attorneys from all six Bay Area counties (San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara, Contra Costa, Marin, and Solano) have joined the fledgling group, which meets monthly. One of the group's projects has been to develop a motion on implicit racial bias to present to judges during bail hearings. Judges might assign higher bail to African-American defendants unconsciously, Adachi says, so the motion is a way to prompt judges to be mindful of their internal biases.

On this Saturday, about two dozen public defenders gathered to discuss strategies for exposing police and prosecutorial misconduct and to plan a conference the group will host later this month at the UC Berkeley School of Law. The conference will train public defenders and other defense attorneys on how to raise the issues of racism and implicit bias in the courtroom in ways that will benefit their clients. If public defenders start acting in concert to challenge bias in the system, Adachi says, "I think we'll be able to start a mini-public defender revolution in the courts."

Considering Adachi's radical roots and revolutionary rhetoric, his focus on implicit, as opposed to intentional, racial bias can seem incongruous. But Adachi appears to be going all in on the theory that all individuals carry prejudice and that disparate outcomes in the system are the result of unconscious bias instead of racist malice. His choice is, in a way, quintessentially Adachi. This, after all, is a man who has spent his life defending people, no matter what crime they've been accused of. He is probably the only political figure in San Francisco willing to say a kind word about Enrique Pearce, the political consultant recently charged with possessing child pornography, who, Adachi reminds me, should not be presumed guilty.

Adachi's approach to confronting racism in the system gives everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. "We all have this residue in our minds that causes us, particularly when we're under stress or we don't have a lot of time to make decisions, to default to stereotypes," he says, implicating himself as well. So he doesn't accuse his targets of being racists; he offers them the opportunity to address unintentional wrongs. Even against his most pitched opponents in a lifelong battle against injustice, Jeff Adachi is willing to offer up a defense.


About The Author

Julia Carrie Wong

Julia Carrie Wong's work has appeared in numerous local and national titles including 48hills, Salon, In These Times, The Nation, and The New Yorker.

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