Calif. supervisors move step closer to closing juvenile hall

The facility would close by the end of 2021


Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco supervisors moved closer to shutting down juvenile hall last week, with a unanimous committee vote pushing the measure to the full board for a final decision in early June.

The decision followed nearly three hours of public comment during the Government Audit and Oversight Committee, with dozens of community organizers and formerly incarcerated youths supporting the effort, saying the facility is mostly empty, ineffective in rehabilitating juveniles and too costly.

“A large juvenile hall is no longer needed,” said Supervisor Shamann Walton, one of co-authors of the measure. “We can and will do so much better.”

Walton and seven other supervisors — a veto-proof majority — have already signed on to support the legislation, which would close the detention facility by the end of 2021.

The measure would require the creation of a task force to assess the needs of youths in the juvenile justice system and identify community-based and therapeutic alternative settings, including a secure site for those who pose a safety risk.

Supervisors drafted the proposal in response to a recent Chronicle report that documented a dramatic drop in serious youth crime that has left the state’s juvenile halls nearly empty and per-inmate costs skyrocketing.

In San Francisco, the 150-bed juvenile hall is typically less than a third full, pushing the annual cost to incarcerate a child to $374,000 in 2018, up from $135,000 in 2011.

The San Francisco Probation Department directed $11.9 million to juvenile hall last year, an amount that has remained relatively flat since 2011, even though the average daily population has been cut in half. The proposal would urge the county to redirect any savings to youth programs.

District Attorney George Gascón and Public Defender Mano Raju, as well as school board President Stevon Cook, endorsed the legislation. If approved, San Francisco would be the first urban county in the state to close its juvenile hall.

Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin, Sandra Lee Fewer, Vallie Brown and Ahsha Safaí have also sponsored the measure.

“I’m in strong agreement with my colleagues, with young people, with community advocates, that it’s long overdue to not just reform but transform our juvenile justice system,” said Mar, one of three committee members. “I believe we have a moral and fiscal responsibility to close juvenile hall.”

It’s unclear whether the measure has the support of Mayor London Breed, who created a blue-ribbon panel to reform the county’s juvenile justice system. The panel’s focus is addressing ways to reduce incarceration and racial inequities as well as how to best use the facilities, including the mostly empty juvenile hall.

Of the several speakers who voiced opposition to the proposal, most were juvenile hall staff members who called on re-purposing the facility rather than closing it. Representatives from local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also lambasted the idea, saying they had been left out of the conversation.

Several counselors who supervise and guard youths inside juvenile hall said they believed closure would increase the threat to public safety. They also described the positive impact they have on the youths.

“I’m proud of the work we do,” said counselor Alonda Austin. “We educate. We are mentors. We offer them structure, give them manners.”

Walton lambasted the idea that the closure would make the city less safe or that there would be nowhere to send young people who are security risks.

“We would never put a system in place that is worse than juvenile hall,” he said. “We’re saying we want to provide a better in-custody experience for our young people.”

Allen Nance, San Francisco’s juvenile probation chief, has also opposed the measure, as has the Juvenile Probation Commission.

In a letter to supervisors sent Tuesday, Nance called the proposal a drastic step and urged the board to focus on creating alternatives before closing the facility.

“For the approximately 40 youths housed at (juvenile hall) on any given day,” Nance said, “the facility represents a safe, secure, nurturing and necessary environment where their needs can be assessed, and a plan for their return to the community can be developed, meeting their best interests and in the furtherance of public safety.”

Yet juvenile defender Robert Dunlap offered an alternative view, describing the prison-like policies and conditions inside juvenile hall in a memo forwarded to supervisors before the meeting.

While incarcerated, the youths detained must remain silent during meals and sleep with a light on. They are shackled behind the back at times, even though every entrance is monitored and requires access through multiple steel doors, Dunlap said.

The kids are also strip searched after parent visits, he said.

“This further imprints on the kids the notion they are criminals, as if the whole juvenile hall atmosphere were not enough, complete with sleeping on concrete slabs and using steel toilets,” he said.

One young woman, 18-year-old Leticia, told supervisors of her experience in juvenile hall, saying that she still remembers the sound of the locked cell door closing and sitting on cold concrete.

“Juvenile hall did not help me at all,” she said. “Shut it down, please shut it down.”

Nance argued that the closure would have a greater negative impact on children of color who make up the vast majority of youths at juvenile hall. Policymakers and community organizers have made the opposite argument.

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©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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