Battle Launches to Shut Down S.F.’s Juvenile Hall

A contentious piece of legislation was introduced at City Hall Tuesday that could shutter juvenile hall by 2021.

“The first time I went to juvenile hall I was 14,” Tenaya Jones began. “Juvenile hall did not support me. I knew what I needed and no one listened. They portrayed me as something I wasn’t. Our families are struggling to stay in San Francisco, and I was a young person needing my needs met.”

Jones is now 18, about to graduate high school, and working two jobs — a feat, she says, that was made possible through support from the Bayview YMCA, the Young Women’s Freedom Center, and Hope SF — not juvenile hall.

It’s a common narrative; thanks in large part to the slew of youth-centered organizations across San Francisco, the need for a juvenile hall has become questionable. A recent report from the Chronicle showed that violent felony arrests of kids have declined 87 percent since 1990, yet the city spends nearly $300,000 per child per year to lock them up. 

Armed with this data, eight city supervisors — Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, Matt Haney, Gordon Mar, Sandra Lee Fewer, Ahsha Safai, Vallie Brown and Aaron Peskin — have cosigned legislation to close down juvenile hall by 2021, and reallocate those funds to community programs and rehabilitation efforts for troubled youth. It’s a long game, but if successful, they would make San Francisco the first urban area in the state to shut down our main youth incarceration system. 

For some, it’s personal. “There is no way in hell we would ever put a system in place that is worse than juvenile hall,” says Bayview/Hunters Point Supervisor Shamann Walton, who spent time in juvenile halls as a youth. Instead, he says, we should replace the hall with a rehabilitation center, offering services such as life skill training and mental health support.

“I have spoken several times at juvenile hall,” he said. “You still have to walk in a line, you still have to take your shoes off to go in your room, you still sleep on a concrete slab with a mat on it. That much hasn’t changed since I was incarcerated as a juvenile. All of that is preparation for how to be incarcerated, and how to handle punishment.”

He also pointed out that contrary to any narrative that shutting down the hall would be a “job killer,” it’s a “job creator.” The programming that would replace the juvenile hall would open up many positions in education, mental health rehabilitation, and job training programs. 

A passionate crowd gathered on City Hall steps Tuesday to support legislation that would shut down juvenile hall. (Photo: Kevin N. Hume)

The legislation has won the support of a wide array of movers and shakers — District Attorney George Gascon, chief attorney of the public defender’s office Matt Gonzalez, district attorney candidates Chesa Boudin and Leif Dautch, and school board President Stevon Cook.

Oddly, missing in action is Mayor London Breed. Breed has long been an advocate of criminal justice reform, but on Monday, she chose to create a Juvenile Justice Reform Blue Ribbon Panel led by Human Rights Commission Director Sheryl Davis and youth advocate Corey Monroe to remedy the existing system instead of shutting it down completely. 

Supervisors Rafael Mandelman, Norman Yee and Catherine Stefani have not signed on to the legislation to shut juvenile hall down, but they don’t need to. It only needs six votes to pass in the Board of Supervisors, which it has, and eight to make it secure from a mayoral veto, which it also has.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done, even if the supervisors pass it.

“We’ve got to stay strong and vigilant throughout,” Ronen told the crowd Tuesday. “Make no mistake about it, getting there is going to be a fight.”

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