Keep Out: Pepper spray in juvenile hall

San Francisco has for years embraced a model of juvenile detention prioritizing rehabilitative, evidence-based treatment of youth detained at juvenile hall.

Relying on an obscure provision in the contract between San Francisco and the union that represents them, juvenile probation counselors have placed our existing system in jeopardy with a recent push to add chemical agents — pepper spray — to their arsenal of disciplinary measures available to subdue unruly youth at juvenile hall. Simply put, the deployment of chemical agents to incapacitate detained youth has no place in San Francisco.

Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that placement in secured detention facilities can cause harm — both immediate and long-term — to the educational and mental development of youth. Introducing pepper spray into an already volatile environment stands only to exacerbate these issues for San Francisco’s most vulnerable youth. Nationwide, the use of pepper spray in juvenile detention facilities has and continues to be predominantly rejected.  As of 2011, less than 30 percent of juvenile detention facilities throughout the United States permitted the use of pepper spray.

Of those that did, only 12 percent authorized probation officers to carry it on their person. Not only are the chemicals themselves particularly dangerous for youth who suffer from unknown heath afflictions, their presence alone inflicts additional harm to rehabilitative efforts already underway.

The great irony with the existing effort by San Francisco juvenile probation counselors to obtain department-issued pepper spray is that it comes at a time when the number of youth filling beds at juvenile hall is at a record low. In the late 1990s, the average daily population at juvenile hall was between 120 to 130 youth. This figure dipped to an average of approximately 90 youth in the early 2000s and presently hovers around the 70s. In May 2015, the juvenile hall population consisted of 46 boys, and 16 girls, totaling 62 youth. 

None of this is to say, of course, that the safety concerns voiced by juvenile probation counselors are not to be taken seriously. Every day, counselors working at juvenile hall are tasked with the herculean task of managing youth who, for any number of reasons, present unquestionable safety risks to those around them. Many are precisely there for committing crimes of violence such as robbery, aggravated assault and even murder. Six among the current male population at juvenile hall have already turned eighteen, the age of majority, while they await resolution of their cases in court. Safety is, and should always be, of paramount concern for the men and women working to service the youth at juvenile hall.

But rather than introducing a chemical agent more commonly found in adult correctional facilities used only in exigent circumstances, our focus should be on how to train and equip counselors with more effective, less punitive, measures to maintain safety. The climate for increasing counselor staffing levels, re-evaluating department response protocols, and improving de- escalation and crisis-intervention training is particularly ripe at the present juncture given the low number of youth currently populating juvenile hall.

The use of chemical agents in San Francisco’s juvenile hall runs contrary to San Francisco’s rehabilitative objectives, and stands to fracture an already tenuous trust between detained youth and juvenile probation staff. Our policy makers must endeavor to increase the likelihood that youth, for whom temporary detention is necessary, come away from juvenile hall better off than how they arrived. Subjecting youth to the threat, or actual deployment, of caustic chemicals is not the way to achieve this objective. Keep it out of San Francisco.

Adam R. Maldonado is chair of the San Francisco Juvenile Justice Commission.

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