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In 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors pledged to close the city’s underused juvenile hall by 2021. This landmark decision, which leverages San Francisco’s multitude of community-based alternatives, is significant both for its recognition of the deleterious effects of confining youths in a jail-like institution as well as the consequent re-evaluation of the justice system. The Board’s decision was conceived in response to strong grassroots support for closure coupled with a report in the San Francisco Chronicle documenting the city’s declining rates of youth crime.

This prevalent trend, according to the Christian Science Monitor, is primarily due to a widespread change in approach to juvenile justice policy and a general decline in youth crime. The article identifies this as a nationwide phenomenon: between 1997 and 2010, the states Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Tennessee were among those with the greatest declines, each reducing their detained youth populations by at least 50 percent. Considering these state declines and the recent reform discussion surrounding the San Mateo and Yolo County juvenile halls, it is apparent that San Francisco will play an imperative role in setting the precedent for future reductions in juvenile detention.

As with any significant change in policy, the decision to close the juvenile hall was met with opposition, albeit relatively minor. Despite the Board’s 10 – 1 majority vote, the Mayor’s Office expressed reservations regarding the timing of the juvenile hall’s closure, including concerns that its population could be relocated to a different county’s correctional facilities. According to an article from KQED news, Mayor London Breed argued, To put out there that we’re going to do something that’s going to immediately… stop young people from even going to any kind of locked facility is just not the most responsible thing to do without a real plan of action.”

However, in the National Institute of Correctionss guidelines for juvenile detention, author Pam Clark indicates that youth confinement does not promote public safety. Additionally, Clark notes that many youth with nonviolent offenses are wrongfully detained, whereas community supervision would be a far less expensive and personally disruptive alternative. In reference to these guidelines, the Prison Policy Initiative publication Youth Confinement: The Whole Pie 2019 makes the case that state juvenile detention facilities could immediately release at least 13,500 more youth…without great risk to public safety.” 

Furthermore, San Francisco has created a task force to develop alternatives to incarceration and to protect public safety: the San Francisco Chronicle reveals, The ordinance requires the creation of a task force to develop home-like and rehabilitative centers…to house youth offenders, including a secure site for those who pose a public safety threat.” As such, the closure of San Francisco’s juvenile hall presents little risk to public safety.

Although San Francisco is breaking new ground as the first major city in the United States to pledge to close its juvenile hall, prior cases of reduced juvenile detention can help guide its policy for juvenile rehabilitation going forward. For instance, in 2017, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors approved a similar decision to explore alternatives to youth detention. Under this decision, a sub-committee of the Countywide Criminal Justice Coordination Committee produced an expansive report exploring potential approaches to minimizing youth contact with the justice system. With each alternative presented, the report provides substantive and practical recommendations for the proposal’s implementation, ranging from a phase-driven schedule for the implementation of youth diversion infrastructure to a set of guidelines dictating a child’s eligibility for rehabilitation.

Furthermore, San Francisco can build upon pre-existing alternatives to juvenile detention that have proven to be successful. In Washington State, the Clark County Juvenile Court partnered with various community groups in order to provide youth in the justice system with opportunities to improve their community, including neighborhood cleaning, park improvement, natural habitat enhancement, and working in senior citizen homes. Instead of the deprived isolation of a cell, these youth were encouraged to follow the example of the positive role models they work alongside and recognize the value of positive contribution.

Such rehabilitative outcomes are the ideal substitute for juvenile hall and should be the goal of any reforms addressing juvenile correctional policy.