San Francisco is closing its juvenile hall, part of a reform effort to move away from adult-style treatment for juvenile offenders. Will the rehabilitative, rather than punitive approach work?
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
All across the country, communities are rethinking how to treat kids who commit crimes. This comes after years of falling youth crime rates and research that shows people who are locked up as teens are more likely to end up in prison as adults.
Well, some communities have made modest changes. But earlier this summer, San Francisco took a huge leap. Its board of supervisors voted to close the city’s juvenile hall by the end of 2021. Marisa Lagos from member station KQED in San Francisco reports.
MARISA LAGOS, BYLINE: Leticia Silot was 16 when she started stealing to help make ends meet. Her single mom was diagnosed with cancer, and she wanted to help her out.
LETICIA SILOT: That’s when I really had to grow up grow up.
LAGOS: She started shoplifting, then stealing phones to make extra money. Over the next two years, Silot had several stints at juvenile hall. Her longest lasted two months. It’s lonely there, she says. Her family didn’t visit. And much of the time, she was alone in her cell, a place, she says, where time stands still.
SILOT: Man, it felt like forever. I don’t even know what time it was half the time because they take the clocks out. They don’t let us have clocks in the building, so it’s like – it’s very confusing.
LAGOS: Someone who did show up was a woman from the Young Women’s Freedom Center, where Silot is now an outreach worker. She says that having just one person believe in her made the difference, despite the trauma she experienced from being in juvenile hall.
SILOT: But she was always there for me. And I mess with her for that. But that’s what made me really connect with the center because I’m like, damn, they really sticking with me, like, even while I’m up in here, like…
LAGOS: Silot was one of the young men and women who have spent time in juvenile hall and lobbied the Board of Supervisors here to shut it down. They say the facility isn’t needed. It’s usually only about a quarter full, the result of low crime rates and fewer arrests. And even prosecutors say of those juveniles who are locked up, only about 10 actually need to be there for their safety or the safety of others.
HILLARY RONEN: I think it’s time to act on this issue.
LAGOS: Supervisor Hillary Ronen helped write the law, which calls for a small task force to come up with alternative secure options for those handful of kids who can’t be sent home.
RONEN: The information that shows that the majority of kids who are in juvenile hall have suffered trauma from the time they were born and suffer from mental illness and that punishment-based systems don’t work to rehabilitate them, these are not new studies. This is not new information.
LAGOS: Officials say that when the lockup shuts its doors in two and a half years, San Francisco will be the first major city in the nation to eliminate a prison-like youth institution entirely.
There are critics of the plan. San Francisco mayor London Breed’s brother spent time in juvenile hall, and he is now an inmate in state prison. Breed says she supports the idea of closing the lockup.
LONDON BREED: We don’t necessarily need to detain a young person who is, unfortunately, stealing.
LAGOS: But Breed says, what about a teenager charged with murdering someone?
BREED: Someone’s son or daughter is dead, and so then what happens to that young person? Sometimes, there is a need. And so what does that look like?
LAGOS: Breed says she doesn’t want to give the public a, quote, “false hope that closing juvenile hall will result in no kids ever being incarcerated.” Supporters agree that they need a secure facility in San Francisco but say it should feel more like a home than a prison and that kids shouldn’t be there unless they’re truly a danger to themselves or others.
Whatever San Francisco ends up doing, it could spread. The neighboring San Mateo County recently announced it’s exploring closing its juvenile hall. And California Governor Gavin Newsom says he will make overhauling the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice a priority, with a focus on rehabilitation over punishment.