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3 SF supervisors pledge to close juvenile hall after Chronicle report

The San Francisco Probation Department directed $11.9 million to juvenile hall last year, an amount that has remained relatively flat since 2011, even though the average daily population has been cut in half.

The Chronicle plans to publish its full series of stories, titled “Vanishing Violence,” in print editions on Sunday and Monday.

If the supervisors succeed, San Francisco would become the only urban area in California without a juvenile hall.

“We’re done with jailing kids,” said Ronen, who was briefed on The Chronicle’s findings. “We have a date; it’s going to be shut down. There’s no wiggle room.”

The supervisors plan to introduce the legislation in early April and hope to see a final vote in June. The measure would launch a task force to figure out how to shut down the facility and create secure and supportive settings for young people accused of crimes, including the most serious or violent offenses.

The task force would look at innovative programs like the Missouri model, which includes small, community-based facilities that are more like dorms than detention centers.

“We want opportunities and alternatives that are actually going to make sure our young folks have opportunity for rehabilitation,” Walton said.

With youth crime at historic lows, now is the time to act, Ronen said.

Last year, in 39 of the 43 California counties that have juvenile halls, the facilities were less than half full in 2018, The Chronicle found, and at least seven counties were operating at or below 25 percent of capacity. In San Francisco, 47 boys and girls were held in the county’s juvenile hall on average, leaving it almost 70 percent empty.

Yet relatively few of those detained needed a restrictive setting, Ronen said. Of the 40 youths in custody in December, nearly a third were there for misdemeanor offenses. About 90 percent were diagnosed with mental health issues, according to an analysis by San Francisco’s Youth Law Center.

Shutting down juvenile hall aligns with a growing body of research that shows that any time in incarceration is bad for youths, said Meredith Desautels, a Youth Law Center staff attorney.

“It would provide the shock to the system that we need to change our thinking about how to approach youth who have gotten into trouble,” she said. “As long as the physical building is there, it will be an easy or default response, and we want to change the default.”

It’s unclear what kind of opposition the measure could face on the Board of Supervisors or in the community.

Allen Nance, San Francisco’s juvenile probation chief, said he welcomes the opportunity to work with supervisors on the issue, but believes it’s critical to have a secure setting to hold a youths who are a danger to themselves or others.

“I cannot imagine how we would keep the community safe or these youth safe if we don’t have a juvenile hall facility,” he said.

Some juvenile offenders are low-risk, and others present a “high criminogenic risk,” he said. There will always be youths who require a restrictive environment for some portion of time, Nance said. “To ignore that reality would be unfortunate and unwise,” he added.

The Chronicle reached out to Mayor London Breed’s office for comment late Thursday, but a spokesperson said that due to her schedule, she could not respond.

Juvenile justice reformers and other elected officials, however, were eager to support the closure of the youth detention center housing unit that opened in 2006 after the county tore down the old facility.

“I think the days of big juvenile halls have come and gone,” said San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, adding that ideally a facility would hold no more than 15 youths. “We’re spending a ton of money right now on a system that doesn’t work very well.”

Those who’ve been there agreed.

Jessica Nowlan grew up on the streets of the Tenderloin and landed in juvenile hall for the first time for shoplifting at age 13, the first of 17 stints in the facility.

She recounted the day a guard opened her cell door to tell her that her sister had died, then closed it, the lock clicking as Nowlan processed the death alone in a tiny cement room. It was only when she landed at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, a San Francisco community organization, looking for a job that she found a way to turn her life around.

“This was the first place that told me, ‘You’re not a bad person, and you are powerful, and your voice matters, and you’re amazing,’” she said. “That’s what changed the trajectory of my life. It wasn’t in juvenile hall.”

Locking kids up doesn’t create safer communities, she said.

“I think I’m excited and hopeful about the kind of world we’re trying to create and the kind of San Francisco we’re trying to create,” said Nowlan, 40, now the executive director of the center.

Walton said he, too, has firsthand experience.

“I can tell you that there was nothing rehabilitative about my juvenile hall experience,” he said. “I was in a room by myself, on a concrete slab with a mat, shoes outside.”

Walton spent time in detention as a youth for auto theft, drug offenses and armed robbery. His mother had to see him chained to other youths, walking in forced silence, as he made an appearance in court, he said.

San Francisco has an opportunity to “dream big” and reimagine something for children other than cement cells and orange jumpsuits, Ronen said.

“We don’t have to find new funding,” she said. “We can just divert funding we’re using irresponsibly toward responsible uses.”

Jill Tucker and Joaquin Palomino
San Francisco Chronicle

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