Public Defender Jeff Adachi is the boy who cried broke 

Public Defender Jeff Adachi has successfully lobbied to nearly double the budget of his office. - AP FILE PHOTO
  • AP File Photo
  • Public Defender Jeff Adachi has successfully lobbied to nearly double the budget of his office.

The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gives people convicted of a crime the right to counsel. But when does this right become a blank check for the Public Defender’s Office? This is the issue facing the Board of Supervisors right now as it attempts yet again to get a handle on the public defender’s budget.

Jeff Adachi has been The City’s public defender for 10 years, and in that time, he has successfully lobbied to nearly double the budget of the office from $13,800,000 in fiscal year 2002-03 to $26,500,000 in fiscal year 2011-12.

With the money, he has grown his office’s staff from 111 to 162 employees.

Adachi can still contract out to private lawyers when he believes his office can’t provide a proper defense. The City must then pay those private attorneys rates of $85 to $120 per hour, versus $45 to $80 for public defenders, according to a 2009 report of the budget analyst.

In other words, Adachi can, if he wants to, rack up bills that The City must pay for private attorneys. And he wields that power repeatedly when opposing cuts or demanding budget increases at the board. Back in 2009, to oppose a $1.2 million cut, he brought in a huge $1,000 bill that he held over his head as he made the case that reducing his budget means uncontrolled spending on private lawyers. It worked, and his department got back $600,000.  

Most recently, he came to the budget and finance committee to ask for $750,000 to fund three investigator positions, plus a few other things like a $28,000 vacation payout for a departing employee. Adachi said that his office couldn’t handle the workload with two investigators on leave and one unfilled position.

Supervisors Scott Wiener and Mark Farrell clearly thought Adachi was crying wolf. Said Wiener: “I don’t believe for a second that these positions are going to legitimately cause the public defender to start declaring unavailability.” Then Farrell said, “I have a problem that you can’t live within your budget. If we don’t acknowledge that, then the budget process is meaningless.”

Wiener asked point blank: “Are you saying that if we reject this supplemental, you’re going to declare unavailability?”

“Absolutely,” Adachi responded.

Attempts at a last-minute compromise were unsuccessful and the matter was finally at the full board Tuesday, where it was sent back to committee because it did not have the eight votes needed to pass.

Just one more chapter in the never-ending quest to determine how much is enough to defend the public — both people accused of crimes and the taxpayers who pay for their defense.


Haiku of the week

a six hundred dollar tow,
Christmas is canceled”

— Board of Supervisors President David Chiu at Tuesday’s meeting, reading a haiku he received from a constituent about the high cost of having one’s car towed in San Francisco. Chiu thereafter introduced a resolution asking the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the Department of Public Works and Police Department to release towing data so that The City could develop technology to inform residents before a tow is necessary.

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Melissa Griffin

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