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Family claims daughter held in SF juvenile hall for 11 days despite release order

San Francisco’s juvenile hall unlawfully held a 13-year-old girl for 11 days in February despite a judge’s order that she be released, according to a federal lawsuit.

The complaint filed this week is the second since 2018 claiming that San Francisco has unlawfully locked up a minor, and it comes as the city plans to overhaul its juvenile justice system in the face of declining youth crime, rising costs and a push to incarcerate youths only as a last resort.

The Chronicle highlighted these issues in a special report, “Vanishing Violence,” this year.

The teenage girl, whose name was withheld because she is a minor, was booked into San Francisco’s juvenile hall in February on charges related to cell phone theft.

One day after being admitted into the maximum-security facility, a judge ordered her released due to insufficient evidence.

Probation officials, however, didn’t follow the court’s order and took the case to a second judge, who signed off on the girl’s detention, according to the suit.

It’s unclear whether the alleged violation occurred because probation officers didn’t agree with the first decision or because it was a procedural error.

Eleven days later, the girl appeared again before the original judge, who questioned why she was still being detained despite his earlier order. This time, the department released the girl.

Over the period that the teenager was in juvenile hall, probation officers did not alert the court of the original order, according to the complaint, despite several opportunities to do so. Meanwhile, the other youth arrested in the alleged cell phone theft had been released on home detention.SUBSCRIBER BENEFITDid you know subscribers get 25% off at The Chronicle store?

While in custody, the teenager slept on a thin mattress placed atop a concrete slab, spent hours alone in her locked cell, and was allowed only restricted visits with her father, Rashad Abdullah, according to the complaint. Throughout the ordeal, the girl said she felt isolated and alone.

“How can we trust in the juvenile system if they’re not abiding by the rules and doing the right thing?” Abdullah said in a statement. “The system expects so many things of kids, but doesn’t hold itself to the same standard. That’s not justice.”

The civil rights violation “reflects a failure by probation to understand the gravity of their primary task, which is ensuring that they are locking minors in custody only when there’s a legitimate basis for doing so,” said Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center who is representing the girl and her father in the lawsuit.

The City and County of San Francisco, Juvenile Probation Department, Probation Chief Allen Nance and two individual officers were named as defendants in the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

San Francisco City Attorney Spokesman John Coté said confidentiality protections limit what he can say about the case since it involves a minor, and that the office will respond in court. Nance also declined to comment directly on the lawsuit since he can’t discuss pending litigation and had not yet been formally served the complaint.

In general, Nance said strict protocols ensure that young people aren’t unlawfully held in juvenile hall, and that any case that suggests otherwise would be an outlier.

“We have reviewed thousands upon thousands of bookings that have occurred within our institutions, and we have a pretty good confidence that the practices work the way they are expected to work,” Nance said. “Kids are not, as a pattern or a matter of consistency, being detained beyond the statutory provisions.”

Still, Nance said the department has taken steps to tighten and improve its detention policies to ensure that youth are never unjustly jailed.

The lawsuit is the second in recent years to allege the unlawful detention of a teenager in San Francisco.

The first complaint, filed in federal court in June 2018, claimed that a 15-year-old was held in juvenile hall for roughly four days in 2017 on charges related to auto burglary, despite a judge’s order that he be released.

In that case a pretrial risk-assessment tool also recommended that the teenager not be detained, according to court filings, but officials overrode the recommendation. The lawsuit is still pending.

In both cases, the young people were African American.

The lawsuits raise concerns that more youths might have been detained without justification, said Desautels.

“Unfortunately, this case is not an isolated incident. It reflects a disturbing pattern in the Juvenile Probation Department of treating a child’s incarceration not as a matter of crisis, but as a matter of course,” she said.

“The Juvenile Probation Department’s disregard for the basic rights and dignity of youth should not be tolerated,” she said, pointing to research showing racial disparities in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system and the negative effects of putting young people in cells.

In 2017, black youths in San Francisco were 45 times more likely to be detained in a secure facility than white youths, according to data provided to The Chronicle by the Burns Institute. Researchers found that even a short stint in custody can have long-term consequences, including an increased likelihood that youths will commit future crimes and struggle in school.

The lawsuit comes as San Francisco prepares to take the unprecedented step of shutting down its juvenile hall by 2021. In its place, the county plans to build a network of home-like and rehabilitative centers, including a secure site for those who pose a public safety threat.

The lawsuits reinforce the need to shutter San Francisco’s 150-bed juvenile hall, youth advocates said. The facility is currently 80% empty, and a past Chronicle story found that it costs roughly $374,000 annually to detain a youth there.

“This case is an example of how this system cannot be trusted to treat our young people with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and why the closure of juvenile hall is so important,” Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, said in a statement. “With that facility closing, we hope to see an end to mistreatment of youth and reinvestment in positive supports that build on their strengths.”

Joaquin Palomino
San Francisco Chronicle

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