Race disparity at juvenile hall prompts search for solutions

When Shawn Richard was sent to The City’s juvenile hall decades ago, he found it stifling. But these days, many kids in Bayview-Hunters Point say it’s better than the streets.

“[The streets] have gotten to the point where kids are fearing for their lives every day,” said Richard, director of Brothers Against Guns, a youth-diversion program in Bayview. “They say they go back to juvenile hall because they feel safer.”

With data and anecdotal evidence showing a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic youths in The City’s detention halls, the Juvenile Probation Department has hired a staff member who will partner with other agencies to help reduce over-represented populations in the juvenile-justice system.

Tanya Red, a former Lowell graduate who received a master’s degree in criminal justice from Sacramento State, will start next month. She will earn $62,500 per year under a grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Blacks make up a little more than 7 percent of San Francisco’s population, but black teens fill nearly 60 percent of The City’s juvenile hall, according to Juvenile Probation Department records. The statistics for Hispanic youths are similar.

Juvenile Probation Department Director William Siffermann said that when he came to San Francisco from a similar job in Chicago three years ago, he was struck by the disparities in The City’s juvenile hall — and by some local practices that keep kids in the facility longer.

“In Chicago, for certain offenses we could release the youth to a parent, but in many situations there may not be a parent available,” Siffermann said. “When we changed it to ‘responsible adult,’ we changed the percentages.”

That change has not been made in San Francisco, he said.

Red will be charged with finding the trouble spots in each part of the system, Siffermann said.

Reversing the trend may also mean boosting youth services in some neighborhoods, according to Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

More than 18 percent of teens in juvenile hall were arrested in Bayview, and another 11.3 percent came from the Western Addition, city records show.

“It’s not because there’s less crime in Pacific Heights,” Adachi said. “It’s just that when something happens in Pacific Heights, there tend to be diversion alternatives.”

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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