Legislation proposing to shut down San Francisco Juvenile Hall by the end of 2021 is a classic example of systemic racism masquerading as compassionate policy. On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is set to ram through an ill-planned, non-transparent overhaul of the juvenile justice system, even though the ordinance’s proponents have not come up with an alternative plan nor bothered to consult key stakeholders such as Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance, his staff and representatives of the local NAACP and faith communities.
This issue has become a viral topic in the African American community. Last week’s meeting of the NAACP Branch of San Francisco attracted its largest gathering anyone can remember, with attendees including former Mayor Willie Brown, Dr. Kenneth Monteiro, former dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University; and NAACP Coastal Director Dan Daniels. Over 150 community members gathered over concern about what might happen to African American children in our city: will they be shipped out of town to other facilities, far from their families, no longer San Francisco’s “problem?”
About 65 percent of residents at the Juvenile Hall are African Americans. The director, Chief Nance, is an African American who is credited with initiating and carrying out numerous reforms at the facility in the areas of education, mental health and wraparound services. Why is it that the legislation sponsors have neglected to approach Nance about their proposal? Why have they also failed to discuss it with African American community leaders who have been making strides on this very issue in partnerships with city agencies for over a decade?
While the ordinance states a study group will be formed to develop alternatives in advance of Juvenile Hall’s closure, no one has approached or designated key stakeholders in the African American community to join that group. It’s yet another example of exclusionary practices targeting black people.
And again it begs the question: Why? What are they afraid of and what are they hiding?
This silent treatment shows disrespect and contempt for black people. Moreover, the lack of transparency in this legislation is setting up the community for confusion and implosion around this issue.
On behalf of the San Francisco Branch of the NAACP, I call upon the Board of Supervisors to vote against this legislation on Tuesday and set forth a sensible, respectful conversation about reforms.
It is true that we should no longer have a Juvenile Hall in the traditional sense. We should rename the facility as a Center for Personal Development and Self Reliance, and incorporate modern systems that justifies the new name. Chief Nance has already been doing it successfully – and he could use more help.
Through sensible, respectful conversation, we should tweak the facility and amend it, but not end it. Many of these kids are underserved academically, have mental challenges and have lacked a social setting free from violence.
If we close down Juvenile Hall, where will violent or sexual offenders and those with mental health issues go? We’re trying to stop a future where they’ll be sent to other counties and states, away from their families. We need to take responsibility for our own, and not pass them on for other communities to deal with.
We deserve a structured, compassionate, professionally-operated setting that allows them to catch up to their peers in their development. They need a comprehensive program that develops healthy mind and bodies that bolster healthy communities. We need to think big, not short change our children.
And we need to get to the bottom of why there has been an utter lack of transparency in consulting the African American community about legislation that impacts them directly. They deserve respect.
Rev. Amos C. Brown is president of the NAACP’s San Francisco branch and pastor of Third Baptist Church.