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San Francisco Tackles Youth Justice Reform, Votes to Close Juvenile Hall

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As of today, San Francisco Juvenile Hall detains an average of 43 juvenile offenders at any given time, according to the Juvenile Probation Department. If the Board of Supervisors get its way, there won’t be a single person left at the facility, staff or detainees, in under three years.

Tuesday’s BOS 10-1 vote to shutter the operation reflects broad support for juvenile justice reform, however, some key players are unconvinced that closing the facility by 2021 is the right or responsible way to go about it. Aside from Supervisor Catherine Stefani, the sole no vote Tuesday, Mayor London Breed and NAACP leader Rev. Amos Brown have been vocal about their opposition to the proposed closure plan.

Brown, who was nearly escorted out of Tuesday’s meeting for a shouting disturbance, criticizes the ordinance as “ill-planned” and accuses those who crafted the legislation, supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, of doing so without consulting communities most impacted by youth incarceration. According to the U.S. Census, the estimated black population in San Francisco County is approximately 5.5 percent, whereas black youth made up 67 percent of juvenile detentions in 2016. The disproportionate racial disparity is not being debated – the dispute is grounded in the method of correction.

For Walton, who himself was once a black youth incarcerated in the juvenile system, the matter is deeply personal. As reported by the San Francisco Bay Time, Walton has said:

“All I learned in the hall was how to survive life in prison. It felt designed for that purpose. I am who I am in spite of Juvenile Hall.”

The space at 375 Woodside Ave. is designed to house 132 kids in custody while they fulfill sentences and await further court hearings or court-ordered placement. The cost to incarcerate each juvenile reportedly runs around $270,000 annually, which, based on the average daily population, puts the total bill somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million per year. It goes without saying that it’s an expensive venture to lock up a steadily dwindling number of adolescent criminals. Alternative programs for delinquent teens, such as Huckleberry House and the recently shuttered Log Cabin Ranch, will be heavily relied on going forward.

The Huckleberry Community Assessment and Resource Center is a homelike, community-based alternative to an incarceration setting that continues to demonstrate successful outcomes. The program has worked with the Juvenile Probation Department and is largely credited for the decline in the city’s Juvenile Hall population.

Protesters rally in front of San Francisco City Hall to urge the closing down of Juvenile Hall. Photo courtesy of SF Weekly

The mayor is not publicly opposed to reform, however, she has stated a preference for holding off on action until her blue-ribbon panel, tasked with studying ways to reduce youth incarceration, provides their full report by end of this year. Despite Breed’s opposition, the ordinance received blessing from 10 supervisors, deeming it veto-proof and forcing Breed’s hand to sign the BOS-approved legislation.

A 13-person working group will be required to provide alternatives by June 2021 and San Francisco Juvenile Hall will permanently close by the end of that same year, making the city one of the first in the nation to do so. The bold move is supported by both the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the city’s district attorney.


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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.