Zak Franet began his first stint in juvenile hall at the age of 13.
“The first time it was an incident where we took the typical teenager ‘TP-ing’ [toilet-papering] prank a little too far,” Franet recalled. “We went inside of a property and smeared chocolate sauce on the walls, which is technically burglary.”
At the time, Franet was offered a deal that ordered him to spend six months in the San Mateo County Juvenile Probation Department, though he served most of that time on house arrest following an error in the processing of his paperwork.
Still, Franet said, the experience had “labeled him.”
“Labels have a lot of power, especially at a young age,” he said. “You start playing into the narrative of, ‘This is what you’re supposed to be.’”
Franet would go on to spend the next five years of his life “in and out” of the juvenile criminal justice system.
Now 24, Franet is halfway into his one year-term on the San Francisco Youth Commission — a position to which he was appointed by the late Mayor Ed Lee — and on a mission to change a system that he says is designed to create a cycle of incarceration that disproportionately affects young adults who have aged out of the juvenile system.
Along with his fellow commissioners, Franet has been working to craft a resolution urging The City’s leaders to set a goal for the decarceration of transitional age youth (young adults ages 18-25) by 50 percent in the next 10 years.
“Nothing magic happens between the age of 17 and your 18th birthday,” Franet said. “We are trying to push the narrative forward that young people should still not be in jail.”
In San Francisco, transitional age youth make up just 8 percent of the total population, but represent about 22 percent of the cases processed by the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office last year, according to Katherine Weinstein Miller, the DA’s Chief of Alternative Programs and Initiatives.
Recent data from the U.S. Department of Justice shows that statewide arrests of youth between the ages of 10 and 17 reached historic low levels in 2016, declining steadily for the ninth consecutive year.
Though unable to pinpoint the exact reason for the significant decline, Mike Males, chief researcher with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said a “small part” can be attributed to a drop in young populations and changes in state laws pertaining to drug and property felonies.
Local programs aimed at “people coming out of jail and transitional services,” coupled with “a massive trend in [young people] graduating from high school and going to college,” are also likely contributors to the positive trend, Males told the San Francisco Examiner.
In 1995, San Francisco had 108 youth in state Division of Juvenile Justice facilities, Males said. In 2016, that number dropped to five.
According to Males, young adults in California between 18 and 24 accounted for 23 percent of arrests in 2016 — a 60 percent decrease over the last decade.
Still, in San Francisco, that age group also represents 25 percent of the county jail population and had the highest number of jail bed days and the longest jail stays of any age group, according to the resolution.
In its second year of operation, The City’s Young Adult Court — a collaborative court program established in 2015 meant to connect young adults who have committed nonviolent crimes to diversion programs as an alternative to the adult court system — is at capacity, Weinstein Miller said.
A “significant number of cases” processed by the court at any given time are robberies, and many are related to cellphone thefts, Weinstein Miller said.
“Robbery in California is a strike. We are a three strike state. With each strike you face incredibly more and more custody time, more prison time,” she said.
The impact of incarceration on young offenders can be a lifelong setback, according to the youth commissioners working to push alternatives.
“In this society at this time, you either have a clean slate or you are starting from 30 times lower than the bottom,” said Mike’l Gregory, a 17-year-old youth commissioner from the Bayview District, whose 24-year-old brother is incarcerated.
The resolution was born out of the Youth Commission’s rejection of state funding to build a new jail in 2015, said former Youth Commission Director Adele Failes-Carpenter.
The vote was in part based on the commission’s commitment to family unity. Several of the youth commissioners have been personally affected by incarceration or parental incarceration, she said.
“They were concerned with [the number of] people in county jail being parents,” she said. “We know this has huge adverse impacts on young people’s lives.”
The resolution, which could come before the Board of Supervisors for vote as soon as January, also calls on The City to create a task force that will work to identify alternatives to incarceration of young adults. Among the alternatives identified by the commission are a focus on education and diversion programs, such as the Young Adult Court.
When Franet turned 15, his mother died in a car accident. By the time he was 18, he was “pretty much continuing along the same line.
“It was this dynamic of never having stability, combined with the fact that I wasn’t performing in school mostly because of issues outside of the classroom environment,” he said.
At 22, he had developed a “pretty serious drug problem” that briefly left him homeless in Oakland. Franet said he freed himself from the label he accumulated at 13, by seeking treatment.
“We should have some kind of diversion system that will get [young people] into programming and will get [them] the support so that hopefully, incarceration can be a one-time experience,” he said.