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San Francisco calls for juvenile hall closure in favor of community-based alternatives

Supporters of San Francisco's proposed juvenile hall closure.

Supporters of San Francisco's proposed juvenile hall closure.

San Francisco could be the first urban area in California to eliminate its juvenile hall. This month, San Francisco supervisors introduced legislation that outlines the timeline for the facility’s closure. Soon after, Mayor London Breed announced her proposal to create an expert panel to discuss the juvenile justice system in San Francisco. These announcements follow an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle examining declines in youth crime and high costs of juvenile facilities in California.

CJCJ finds that youth arrest rates have had a general pattern of decline for the past four decades and have reached historic lows each year since 2007. Further, as the Chronicle’s report explains, 39 of the 43 California counties with juvenile facilities in 2018 had facilities that were less than half full. San Francisco’s juvenile hall has a capacity of 150 beds, yet its population only includes 47 youth.

Meanwhile, the costs of confinement for each youth in counties’ juvenile facilities has skyrocketed over the past decade. In its closer review of 14 counties, the Chronicle found that average per capita costs of detaining youth increased in each county since 2011, with increases ranging from 29 percent to 214 percent. In San Francisco, the probation department dedicated $11.9 million to the juvenile hall in 2018, an amount that has remained relatively consistent since 2011, even though the average daily population has been cut in half.

Just hours after the Chronicle published its findings, Supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, and Matt Haney pledged to close San Francisco’s juvenile hall. Their legislation establishes a task force to lay out the timeline of the juvenile hall’s closure by the end of 2021. The supervisors were also able to garner the support of Supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer, Gordon Mar, Aaron Peskin, Vallie Brown, and Ahsha Safaí—receiving enough co-sponsors to ensure that the legislation will be veto-proof once the final vote takes place in June.

Mayor London Breed also announced the creation of an expert panel that will focus on comprehensive and system-wide reform to San Francisco’s juvenile justice system. The panel’s first meeting is today, April 18th, and members will include CJCJ Executive Director, Daniel Macallair, among various juvenile justice stakeholders.

In December of last year, 70 percent of San Francisco’s juvenile hall went unused. Among the mere 40 youth who were detained or confined there, nearly a third were facing misdemeanor charges and 90 percent had been diagnosed with a mental health issue. With this, not only is the facility going largely unused, but there remains a serious question as to why the current population is institutionalized in the first place.

Amid policy reforms that emphasize rehabilitation instead of punishment and incarceration, California has seen falling youth crime with a 71 percent decline in total youth arrests and a 57 percent decline in arrests for violent offenses from 2010 to 2016. As counties like San Francisco continue to experience declining youth justice involvement and consider alternatives to confinement, state juvenile facilities are also faced with pressure to close amid increasing evidence that their punitive practices are ineffective and inhumane.

A growing body of research shows that any period of time in confinement is harmful to youth; even one experience in juvenile hall can lead to a higher likelihood of future involvement in the justice system. San Francisco, among other counties, is over-funding a minimally populated institution that could be making the issue even worse.

The timing to close San Francisco’s juvenile hall has never been better; the cost of maintaining the facility is at an all-time high and its population is at an all-time low. Closing down the juvenile hall would protect youth from the trauma of confinement and redirect them to the strong network of community-based programs that provide high-quality services including therapy, mentoring, case management, and family engagement for the city’s highest-needs youth. Community-based service providers are excited by San Francisco’s leadership in pushing forward on an issue that has long been overlooked.

CJCJ Executive Director Dan Macallair speaks to supporters of San Francisco's juvenile hall closure.

CJCJ Executive Director Dan Macallair speaks to supporters of San Francisco's juvenile hall closure.

Right before the legislation was introduced to the Board of Supervisors on April 9th, a press conference was held on the steps of City Hall. The sponsoring supervisors, community-based service providers, and individuals with firsthand experience in the juvenile justice system spoke in support of shutting down San Francisco’s juvenile hall. CJCJ’s Executive Director was one of the speakers in support of closing the facility.

“We have a chance here, to rewrite the history of juvenile justice,” he said. “What we do here today will shape the future of juvenile justice for the 21st century throughout California.”

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