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Protesters urge Alameda County to abandon effort to expand juvenile camp

Lawyers, activists and a few former prison inmates urged Alameda County officials Thursday to abandon efforts to rebuild a juvenile detention camp.

A new $75 million, 100- to 120-bed facility — as envisioned by the county since 2009 but recently put on hold — is unnecessary and would perpetuate a punitive justice system that doesn’t work, said critics who gathered at county administrative offices.

The debate in Alameda County is part of a national conversation over the incarceration of juveniles. Cities, including New York and San Francisco, as well as the state of Missouri, are minimizing or abandoning the jailing of youths.

Camp Sweeney, located in the San Leandro hills, is a minimum-security detention camp with a current capacity of 60 male adolescents and a daily population of just a dozen, according to a recent county count.

County officials obtained a state grant to rebuild the site 11 years ago, with plans to create a camp-like setting with 120 beds for boys and girls. Since then, the project has moved slowly forward, with design plans and environmental impact reports finalized and, at one point, a completion date of June 2020.

Probation Chief Wendy Still told county officials in June that before moving forward with the construction, the community needs to rethink the scope of the project given efforts across the county to reassess juvenile justice. San Francisco voted to shut down its juvenile hall within the next two years. There will be community listening sessions about what a new Camp Sweeney would look like, Still said.

But simply adjusting the existing plan is not good enough, advocates and community groups said at the supervisors’ Public Protection Committee meeting Thursday.

“The systemic incarceration of people is not working,” said Nifa Akosua, of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “What it does is it creates them to be tougher, to be stronger when they get out.”

Several speakers cited data from The Chronicle’s Vanishing Violence series, which outlined the dramatic decline in youth crime in recent years and the high cost to incarcerate youth.

The annual cost to incarcerate a youth in Alameda County reached $493,000 in 2018, according to the investigation. That’s up from $157,000 in 2011. In many counties across California, juvenile probation departments built large juvenile detention centers after youth crime spiked, and have clung to spending and staffing levels from those days.

Supervisor Richard Valle, who chairs the committee, was not immediately available for comment.

Currently, Camp Sweeney, built in the 1950s, sits on seismically unstable land, which resulted in the closure of the gym on the site. There is also a hillside slide area nearby. The county’s plans for a new camp would use nearby land for boys’ and girls’ housing, as well as a large play field and basketball courts.

Still told the county Board of Education in June that it’s likely that plan would be dramatically changed in the future given the trends in juvenile justice reform, with fewer residential facilities and more services for youths.

Currently, the camp offers detained youths academic and emotional support, job and life-skill training, career development and more.

“No matter where we build or what we build, these will all be elements of the approach we take,” she said.

But on Thursday, about three dozen people sat in the gallery as speakers urged supervisors to officially pull the plug on the project, holding signs that read, “Spending millions on youth incarceration is not what love looks like.”

A few gave supervisors large red Valentine paper hearts with similar messages.

“I can’t believe the county is on the verge of spending $75 million on something that is ineffective, that is racist,” said Marcia Lovelace, of Genesis, a faith-based community organization.

Two-thirds of the youths held in the county’s juvenile hall or detention camp are black, even though African American youths make up just 10% of the general population, according to county data.

Many of those speaking to supervisors said they would rather see the money invested in mentoring, education programs, sports and other services — things that actually help youths find a future.

Earl Simms told the committee members he spent 22 years in prison on a gang-related homicide. His life could have been different, he said.

“There was a time I wanted help, but there was no one,” Simms said, “no one who looked like me.”

Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle

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