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Will S.F. close juvenile hall on time, or will kids still be incarcerated at an annual cost of $1.1 million per kid?

The 15 young offenders inside juvenile hall on an typical day sleep in locked cells, their bed a thin mat on a cement platform, their walls bare — hardly a rehabilitative setting — and it’s costing San Francisco $3,000 per day or the equivalent of $1.1 million annually for each one.

Less than two years ago, city officials deemed this type of detention for children unacceptable, given the trauma inflicted and the exorbitant cost.

San Francisco planned to shut down its juvenile hall by the end of 2021, detaining only the most serious offenders in a home-like environment and diverting other offenders into community programs to become the first major city in the country to end the incarceration of young people.

But with the deadline for closure six months away, the odds that officials will make it don’t look good after the pandemic and politics slowed down momentum.

“A moving van is not going to drive up at the end of the year and move everything out,” said Margaret Brodkin, a member of the city’s Juvenile Probation Commission, and advocate of the closure. “The process has been really difficult, particularly because of the pandemic, but also because everyone has come into this with different ideas.”

It’s possible, she added, the city could approve an action plan by December but it’s not likely the city can shutter the hall by then.

The difficulties point to how messy criminal justice reform can be. Even when widely supported changes are embraced, working out the details can be daunting.

The 2019 decision to close juvenile hall — which had deep support at City Hall at the time — came on the heels of a national conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline and how to bring down incarceration in California. City officials cited The Chronicle’s Vanishing Violence investigation, which highlighted dramatic declines in juvenile crime resulting in near-empty juvenile lock-ups and skyrocketing costs to maintain the facilities across the Bay Area and California, in their decision.

City leaders said diverting the vast majority of juvenile offenders into community programs would ensure they never entered the legal system, never had a criminal record and got needed help. It meant juvenile criminal justice would deliver on its promise to provide services and support — not punish — offenders.

In the interim, juvenile crime continued to drop and the number of occupied cells at juvenile hall has continued to fall — down 84% in the past 10 years.

But after 18 months of planning, the task force responsible for coming up with a closure plan — including an alternative secure facility to house youths on a mandatory hold — has yet to make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

The process also will require public vetting and a final vote with mayoral support to proceed. The site would need state approval as well sign off by a Superior Court judge, officials said. Then comes any required construction to adapt an existing facility to meet state requirements.

Supervisors have so far resisted any efforts to extend the December deadline to close the hall.

“We are certainly nowhere near changing the date,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen. “We’re not going to relieve that pressure and the expectation that this committee gets this work done in time.”

For the handful of youths accused of violent felonies and other serious crimes, the legislation called for closing the over-sized hall below Twin Peaks and placing them in a secure residential setting, no cells, no orange jumpsuits, no cement beds.

But the process to shutter the 150-bed facility has been mired in an ongoing battle over where to put those offenders who the state requires be held in a secure setting.

Currently, not all those in the hall are the most serious offenders. As in the past, some are awaiting placement in foster homes while others have been brought in on warrants.

City officials continue to debate how many secure beds are needed, ranging from 10 to 25, which matters in terms of what kind of facility is required in the future.

The juvenile hall closure task force has identified one location in the city, the Edgewood Center for Children and Families, that could serve as a secure facility, with enough space for at least 20 beds.

The site in the Sunset District is a large woodsy campus, with several historic buildings providing youth services, including crisis mental health care and residential behavioral and emotional treatment.

The city could lease two buildings and convert them into secure facilities, officials said.

Critics of the site, however, say Edgewood does not meet the criteria of a community-based, residential setting. It’s an institution, one that youths and families associate with negative and traumatic experiences, said Krea Gomez, a member of the closure task force and director of local initiatives for the Young Women’s Freedom Center.

“What we’re being told by one group of people is that a building is a building,” she said. “Institutions hold memories. We don’t want Edgewood; it’s been harmful to us.”

Edgewood officials said the task force asked them to be part of the conversation, but that nothing has been decided and if the site is selected, it would lease the space, but not provide services or programming.

“We’re just in a listening phase right now,” said Edgewood CEO Lynn Dolce.

While Edgewood provides a range of services for young people, including residential care, it doesn’t have the typical feel of an institution, but perhaps something akin to a boarding school, Dolce said.

“It’s exactly what they say they want — more of a residential setting with a living room, beautiful views, an outdoor area,” added Meg Heinicke, a board member of the organization. “The word institution has a real feel to it and I’m not sure anyone would walk on the campus at Edgewood and feel like it’s institutional.”

Gomez, however, said the whole point of closing juvenile hall was to re-imagine juvenile justice, to create a space where young people can be seen as the children they are and provided the services they need.

“Why aren’t we dreaming bigger? Why aren’t we dreaming innovatively?” she said.

There is “real potential” at the Edgewood campus, said Juvenile Probation Chief Katy Weinstein Miller, who is also part of the closure task force, but the committee is hearing “loud and clear concerns” about the site, she added.

The task force continues to meet regularly, requesting suggestions for secure sites, but members are expected to vote on a comprehensive proposal for the programs, services and facility needs related to the closure and submit the decision to supervisors in the coming weeks.

Gomez does not want to see the closure delayed and is hoping another site can be identified to push Edgewood out of contention. So far, however, no one has come up with a adequate alternative.

Closing juvenile hall still has strong support, including from Mayor London Breed, but it’s unclear how long it will take to make it happen.

“The City does not need such a massively large building for a small and decreasing number of people in the facility. But we do need a safe and court-approved facility for those who need to be detained,” said Jeff Cretan, Breed’s spokesman. “Unless we are open to the reality of moving young people out of county when the courts require detention, we can’t close until we have a new facility.”

For years, the population in juvenile hall has been declining, a result of a dramatic drop in juvenile crime in California and the country over the past three decades.

In California, juvenile arrests continued to see dramatic declines in 2020, despite school closures and a lack of sports and other activities. Last year, 25,710 young people were arrested, down 40% from 2019 and 64% lower than 2015, according to the state Department of Justice.

Felony arrests were down 47% year over year and misdemeanors dropped 72% from 2019.

In 2019, the most recent year available, juvenile arrests nationally were at the lowest level since 1980, including arrests for violent crimes and property crimes, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In San Francisco, a one-day snap shot of youth detained in San Francisco from the first three months of this year identified just three young people detained for 707(b) offenses, which include the most violent felonies, including murder, rape and assault, compared to 23 a decade earlier, according to the Board of State and Community Corrections.

On some days in recent months, the number of youths detained at San Francisco’s hall has dipped to five or six — down from 40 or 50 two years earlier.

But as long as juvenile hall remains open, the city will have to continue to foot the bill.

San Francisco’s proposed budget for juvenile probation is expected to reach nearly $44 million this next year, including $17 million for juvenile hall.

That’s an increase of $2.4 million overall, although much of that increase is state funding allocated to counties to serve the most serious young offenders currently housed in the state youth prisons, which are closing down over the next two years.

But the proposed budget continues to allocate nearly $3 million for the Log Cabin Ranch, a juvenile detention camp that closed a few years ago, to cover security and maintenance, as well as the salaries of Log Cabin staff who transferred to San Francisco and remain on the payroll, Miller said.

The proposed budget for juvenile probation also doesn’t reflect workers who have emergency placements in other departments.

It also doesn’t include any allocations or reductions related to the closure of juvenile hall, which would require an adopted plan to move forward, officials said.

“It is unfortunate that we are behind schedule in closing the Juvenile Hall since that is the right thing to do,” Brodkin said. “However, if our policymakers are aggressive about the budget and bureaucratic changes that must occur, and we can all rally around a realistic proposal that while imperfect will be a significant improvement for our youth, we could have a concrete plan that we will be beginning to put in place by the deadline.”

Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton, who spent time in juvenile hall as a youth, said he remains “100%” committed to the closure and is awaiting the recommendations to move forward.

Research has repeatedly shown that incarcerating children has long-lasting negative effects, including a likelihood of landing in prison in adulthood. California’s judges, probation chiefs, elected officials and child advocates acknowledge that the state’s juvenile justice system is in need of reform.

“We cannot have kids in a situation that really is feeding the pipeline to prison in an almost intentional way,” Walton said of the conditions at juvenile hall. “We need a space that doesn’t look like, doesn’t feel like prison or the county jail.

“At this point in time, I don’t see any reason not to stick to the timeline.”

Jill Tucker
San Francisco Chronicle

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