Supporters rally in support of a plan to shut down San Francisco Juvenile Hall outside City Hall on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco to shut down juvenile hall

Board voted 10-1 for plan despite mayor’s opposition, calls for reform rather than closure

With a 10-1 vote, San Francisco supervisors on Tuesday passed legislation to shutter The City’s Juvenile Justice Center by the end of 2021.

The proposal approved by the Board includes amendments adding protections for the facility’s staff, who will be required to transition into other jobs, and requires the Board to approve a final closure plan for the facility as well as a separate resolution by June 1, 2021.

Mayor London Breed and others including local NAACP leader Rev. Amos Brown oppose the proposal and have called for reforms to the facility in lieu of a complete closure. Brown in a statement called the legislation “an ill-planned, non transparent overhaul” lacking an alternative plan for youth who must be detained as well as for the staff currently employed at the facility.

Earlier on Tuesday, Breed told reporters that closing the facility “may require us to work with other counties,” placing The City in a position “where we will pay those other counties to house juveniles.” She previously called for a Blue Ribbon Panel to conduct a comprehensive study of what reforms would look like before closing the facility for good.

With only about 39 youth currently incarcerated in the San Francisco facility, the legislation’s supporters have described it as a pricey pipeline into the adult prison system, with San Francisco spending more than $270,000 to incarcerate each child annually.

The legislation, drafted by supervisors Matt Haney, Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton, gained the backing of every supervisor except Catherine Stefani, who cast the sole vote against it.

“I do believe this piece of legislation is well intended — I’m on the same page in terms of why we are doing this. But when we flip that page to the solution, I’m not there yet because I really have a hard time closing juvenile hall with a date certain and without a plan in place,” she said.

Minutes before the vote, Brown shouted down Walton, alleging that the supervisor had not met with him on the matter and challenging him to “tell them the truth.”

Walton said that a variety of stakeholders were consulted in drafting the legislation, including members of the black, brown, LGBTQ communities and criminal justice and youth experts.

“There are a few talking heads running around claiming they should have been part of the discussion when they wouldn’t know what juvenile justice was if it hit them in the head,” said Walton. “We would never put a system in place that is worse than our current juvenile hall. We are proposing an alternative that also provides a true opportunity for young people to be rehabilitated …even for serious offenders.”

Outside of the Board chamber, the legislation’s approval was met with applause from youth advocates, many of whom in recent months had lobbied city leaders to replace San Francisco’s youth detention center at 375 Woodside Ave. with a smaller, non-institutional center for youth who must be detained per state law focused on rehabilitation.

One youth advocate could be heard yelling “this is what victory looks like.”

The legislation will also mandate “homelike” options for young people who don’t need to be detained but are not able to be at home. It calls for the establishment of a working group tasked with developing a closure plan and a “Youth Justice Reinvestment Fund” to support community-based alternatives to detention.

Ahead of the vote, the legislation had already received backing from a total of ten board members, rendering it veto-proof. San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office and District Attorney George Gascon also back the legislation.

Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance on Tuesday pleaded with the supervisors to retain the facility, and addressed criticism of its operations.

“When you look at the staffing of our counselors, and yes they are counselors and not guards, they are highly trained, well supervised, they are not carrying weapons,” said Nance. “The school district provides a very well organized and structured academic setting for young people. Our juvenile hall is just not a place were our young people are in secure custody, it is also a place where they are receiving treatment.”

Nance added that state law mandates that if San Francisco’s juvenile detention centers are deemed unfit for housing youth, they could be transferred out of county.

Walton pressed Nance on recidivism rates for youth incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities. A 2015 MIT study found that juvenile incarceration lowers high-school graduation rates by 13 percentage points and increases adult incarceration by 23 percentage points.

Nance said that “no such study has been done” in San Francisco.

“My presumption is that if a young person doesn’t get their needs met, then their likelihood of recidivism is high,” said Nance. “Just so you know, most young people in San Francisco are not detained in juvenile hall and most are successful on probation.”

Nance acknowledged that young people who do not have a parent or guardian who can sign off on their release can be detained longer.

“The harsh truth is that the incarceration of children in jail-like environments, behind steel doors in concrete rooms, does not work,” said Haney. “Incarceration adds trauma and pain to the lives of children who have often already experienced an unimaginable amount of trauma and pain.”

Haney pointed out that the juvenile detention center “sits at 25 perecent capacity” with many of the youth “sitting there on misdemeanors awaiting trial.” He added that the legislation is not “an attack on the staff” of the facility.

“This is not a facility they designed, The City built this facility, and for that reason it’s our responsibility to deal with it,” said Haney. “Kids need treatment, support, education, community based, non-incarceration based opportunities. They need better than we are doing now. “

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joshua Sabatini contributed to this report.


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Rev. Amos Brown, President of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP, speaks against the possible closing of juvenile hall at a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Brown and Supervisor Shamann Walton exchanged tense words over the proposal during the Board of Supervisors meeting later that day. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

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