Robert Scheer SI Podcast SI: Human Rights & Civil Rights SI: Justice & Injustice SI: Politics

Jeff Adachi: How America Came to Have the World’s Biggest Prison Population

The Japanese-American public defender tells how his family's past affects his present and reveals why he withdrew his support of California's new bail law.

In this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” elected Public Defender of San Francisco Jeff Adachi, whose parents were confined in an Arkansas internment camp during World War II, recalls how he knew that his parents were “in jail” for being Japanese-American and describes how that understanding affected his life. “That experience—that they didn’t have a trial, that there was never any Japanese-American who was charged with espionage—really ingrained in me the notion that you have to fight for your rights,” he says. “It’s not something that you can take for granted.”

Adachi kicks off the conversation by discussing the new bail law in California, which was purportedly designed to make the existing system more fair. But he and other initial backers decided to drop their support when California Gov. Jerry Brown and judicial advisers made substantive changes to it.

For Adachi, the old system offered a way to “buy your freedom,” which seems to run counter to the vaunted ideal of liberty and justice for all, especially since, as he puts it, “85 percent of the people who are behind bars are there because they cannot post bail.” He opposes the new bill because, he says, it “gives all the power to the judges” to use preventive detention, which precludes the possibility of posting bail and can result in a person sitting in jail indefinitely, even in misdemeanor cases. That strategy is particularly onerous if the person in question is innocent.

Over the course of his career, Adachi has fought for basic constitutional rights and against police and prosecutorial misconduct. “In the immigration court,” he says, “you don’t have the right to a lawyer, even if you’re a child,” so he’s established an immigration unit in the public defender’s office to provide representation to any immigrant who is detained or in custody, including the undocumented and green-card holders.

The discussion takes a lively turn when Adachi suggests that “America at its best is a place where everyone is welcome … [in which] everyone who wants to be part of this great society is able to do that.”

Catch the full episode below:


Jeff Adachi – Public defender of the City and County of San Francisco

Robert Scheer

Joshua Scheer