Supervisor Shamann Walton has taken the lead on a proposal to shut down juvenile hall in San Francisco. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Proposal to shut down juvenile hall gains momentum

Opponents say plan could hurt the youth it is intended to help

Following emotional testimony by formerly incarcerated youth and their advocates, a proposal to shut down San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Center over the next two-and-a-half years gained unanimous backing from a San Francisco Board of Supervisors committee on Thursday.

However criminal justice authorities have said The City would better serve its youth by focusing on reforming the juvenile justice system, or at least allowing more time to develop alternatives.

The full board is expected to vote on the plan in two weeks. If approved, city staff would be directed to shutter the 150-bed facility at 375 Woodside Ave. by 2021 and develop alternatives to jailing youths.

The effort has garnered broad support by juvenile justice reform advocates and city leaders. Eight members of the Board of Supervisors have signed on, citing an urgent need to shift The City’s focus away from incarceration to community-based rehabilitation, education and mentorship.

One of the ordinance’s authors, District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton, wants those alternatives to include mental health services and a small facility for the “small amount of youth that must be detained” per state law.

Walton has made no secret out of the fact that he’s spent periods of his youth locked up.

“There are differences in experiences but there are a lot of similarities… you still have to sleep on a concrete ground with a mat, walk in a line like you do in prison — this is the true preparation for the prison pipeline,” said Walton.

Several youth who spoke at Thursday’s hearing echoed that sentiment.

“It’s been six months since I have been in juvenile hall. I have been incarcerated there multiple times. It was back to back to back,” said 18-year-old Leticia Silot, who her life turned around when she was contacted by the nonprofit Women’s Freedom Center.

“I’m about to graduate in June, I have a job and am applying for a second job,” she said. “Juvenile Hall did not help me at all until I got into this program. Sitting in that cell tore me apart. All I wanted was to go home. I couldn’t even see outside. Those windows are blurry.”

While juvenile hall served an average of 123 youth in 2008, recent data shows that the facility serves less than 50 youth at a time, yet costs of running it have increased over the past decade.

Last year, the facility operated on a nearly $12 million budget, but was nearly two-thirds empty.

Despite broad support for the proposal, top juvenile justice probation officer Allen Nance penned a letter to the board earlier this week voicing his disapproval.

According to Nance, the effort would adversely impact juvenile offenders, particularly African American youth who made up 62 percent of its population in January.

“Closing the existing facility without clear alternatives denies these marginalized, disenfranchised and vulnerable youths the very interventions collectively designed to meet their needs,” wrote Nance, adding that African American and Latino youth would be most impacted.

Nance pointed out that San Francisco is still required to detain juveniles.

“No jurisdiction the size of San Francisco or larger has taken the drastic step to close their juvenile detention facility. There is no national model for a shift of this magnitude,” wrote Nance, who asked the board to redirect the focus of ordinance and it’s deadline to allow more time to develop an alternative.

In a May 9 letter, the Juvenile Probation Commission also called for city leaders to hit the brakes on closing the facility and to instead focus on reforms to the juvenile justice

“We believe that an emphasis on an evidence informed comprehensive plan, and not on closing Juvenile Hall, would enable thoughtful consideration of all strategic options to yield the best results – mitigating the risk of destabilizing the juvenile justice system in San Francisco and putting youth in further jeopardy of entering the criminal justice system,” the Commission wrote.

Opponents of the proposal have voiced concerns about job losses that would come with the facility’s closure.

“We are talking about replacing 85 percent people of color staff at juvenile hall,” said Samuel Carr, a counselor at Juvenile Hall. “Let’s get real. This is displacing people of color out of the City like we have been doing.”

“I spent the last three decades trying to eliminate the need for juvenile hall, we are just not there yet,” said another juvenile hall employee. “Our goal is to return the youth to the community. We don’t control the front door, we just try to improve the lives of everyone that comes through it.”

Walton said that the effort is not “an attack on the staff,” but “an attack on the system.”

“We are not eliminating programs that work, or pushing out people who do a good job. If you [read] the legislation, we are proposing an alternative experience that does a better job of serving the young folks,” said Walton.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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