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The Young Women’s Freedom Center Wants to Shut Down San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall. City Leaders Just Voted to Support Them

The city of San Francisco could close its Juvenile Hall, a youth detention facility, by the end of 2021. According to local CBS affiliate KPIX, the city’s board of supervisors voted 10-1 on June 4 to make the move, which would represent a radical shift in how the city handles criminal justice for young people.

Put together by supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, and Matt Haney, the ordinance comes as the 132-bed facility has often been up to 75% empty with $13 million in operating expenses, according to what Ronen said at a meeting in April. KPIX reported it also comes as youth crimes across the city have decreased.

“We need something that’s going to change mindsets; something that’s going to rehabilitate,” said Walton in April. Walton indicated at the time that some juveniles will still be incarcerated in other facilities and shared how his own personal experience of youth incarceration contributed to his decision.

“Having your shoes sit outside your door. Sleeping on a mat that’s on a slab coming out the wall,” Walton described. “You tell me how that’s going to help you be successful. I’ve experienced that and that’s not what helped me be successful.”

The newly passed legislation was produced in partnership with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, a nonprofit organization focused on advocacy, research, and coalition-building for the communities (often of color) who find their young folks incarcerated.

“I actually came to the Young Women’s Freedom Center in 1996 because I heard about this organization that hired folks like me. I was living and working on the streets. I’d been incarcerated several times,” Jessica Nowlan, the center’s executive director, told Teen Vogue in an interview. She shared that she’d heard she might be able to secure a job with the group and started working there. The center “literally transformed my life,” she said.

“We work to build personal and collective power so that we can transform the systems that keep us stuck in a cycle of poverty, incarceration, and violence,” she says, adding that the group’s involvement with getting the Juvenile Hall shut down is “deeply important and part of our structure” to interrogate San Francisco’s “ecosystem of criminalization of poor folks of color.”

“They gave me a lot of support in school, work, family issues, and most importantly, myself — how to build myself up and speak on what I believe in,” Tenaya told Teen Vogue. “I got hired as a community organizer, so I’m reaching out to youth that are my age and in similar situations.”

The group’s involvement with the board of supervisors’ newly passed plan was a natural fit because of its past, Nowlan explained.

“It’s been over 38,000 folks [involved with the center] over the years — 95% of us have been incarcerated, 100% of us come from poverty,” she shared. Nowlan said that her own experience with San Francisco’s justice system was echoed back to her on a visit to Juvenile Hall when she took over at the center.

“I remember talking to a young person, and she was telling me her experience,” Nowlan shared. “And I was just like, This is 20 years later, and she’s telling us the same story.”

Talking directly with the community is the standard model for the Freedom Center’s work. As an organizer there, Tenaya said she works with communities firsthand to understand their experiences. This work includes Huddles in the Hood, gatherings of “folks in the communities that are most impacted by justice systems,” she said, to collect information on what good alternatives to Juvenile Hall.

Tenaya said she hopes the center’s $13 million annual budget will be reinvested in community resources. Another need expressed has been housing: “Most of the youth now, they’re on their own if they don’t have an adult or their parents can’t provide for them,” she said.

Under Nowlan’s leadership, the group has worked “hand in hand” with the board of supervisors to achieve this long-term goal. The plan will set up a 13-person working group to figure out how the city will handle those who would otherwise be incarcerated, with a focus on alternatives like job training and enrichment programs.

But the city’s mayor, London Breed (the first black woman to hold the position), said Tuesday she opposes the measure. In March, Breed announced she was launching a “blue-ribbon panel” of city leaders to “focus on comprehensive and system-wide reform” to the city’s criminal justice system.

“I have seen firsthand the impact our juvenile justice system has on our young people,” Mayor Breed said in the announcement. “While we have had success in greatly reducing the number of incarcerated youth in San Francisco, we need to take the next step and reimagine what our system will be in the future.”

According to the San Francisco Examiner, Breed said Tuesday the plan “may require us to work with other counties” and force the city to “pay those other counties to house juveniles.” As reported by the San Francisco Examiner, Breed cannot veto the plan because it passed 10-1.

Nowlan is both behind the push from the board of supervisors and on the blue-ribbon panel. She hopes that people will see the working group and the panel as complementary, not competing, efforts. But it seems not everyone feels that way.

“The initiators of this measure did not have the courtesy nor the respect to meet with the African American community,” the San Francisco NAACP chapter’s leader, Reverend Amos Brown, who interrupted the Tuesday meeting, said, according to ABC 7. The San Francisco Examiner reported that Brown said in a statement the new plan was “an ill-planned, non-transparent overhaul.”

Nowlan sees the work they’re doing with communities as part of a long-term plan. “Systems are never going to transform themselves, and we know that. At best, there’ll be some moderate changes,” she said. “I think what we’re saying with shutting down Juvenile Hall is, Do we think [juvenile incarceration] is the only solution? Absolutely not.”

That is the next step for both the mayor’s blue-ribbon panel and the working group the board of supervisors’ plan would create: Time to use what Nowlan calls “radical imagination” to consider what is possible in lieu of the Juvenile Hall. The Young Women’s Freedom Center has been talking to folks on the ground about what exactly they might need.

“We spent the past two years doing life-course interviews with 100 system-involved women, girls, trans, and nonbinary folks in San Francisco,” she said, explaining new research available on the Freedom Center’s website. “We really want to look at this ecosystem of criminalization in a deep way.” The group is planning events based around its findings in an effort to provide the information to changemakers and stakeholders and ensure that those impacted by the city’s criminal justice system are represented in the conversations.

“We made a choice that San Francisco was not going to erase us from this city,” Nowlan said.

Lucy Diavolo
Teen Vogue

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