First Vote to Shutter S.F.’s Juvenile Hall Passes Unanimously

Three hours of public comment showed strong opinions on both sides — but in the end, the plethora of data proving its ineffectiveness and testimony of formerly-incarcerated young people prevailed.

San Francisco supervisors took the first step in shutting down the city’s Juvenile Hall Thursday, voting 3-0 in support during the Government Audit and Oversight Committee. The legislation will now move forward to the full Board of Supervisors for a vote on June 4, and with eight supervisors already having signed on, it’s expected to fly through the approval process. 

Supervisor Shamann Walton, who was incarcerated in Bay Area juvenile halls as a youth, spoke passionately about the need for the closure, and the reinvestment of funding for “individualized plans that focus on the person, not the infraction.”

“Two years is enough time. There is a plethora of data out there that tells you how this system is currently not working,” he said. “This was the thing to do years ago.”

During public comment, stories from formerly-incarcerated kids, public defenders for juveniles, and advocates painted a picture of a harsh system that isolates and punishes children, many of whom have only committed minor crimes like petty theft.

Of those, one of the most powerful was a statement from Robert Dunlap, a public defender who works with youth.

“In spite of recent anti-shackling laws, kids are vastly over restrained in Juvenile Hall.  Even when walking … a distance of some 15 feet, a kid is shackled behind his back, walked over, unshackled, then reshackled for the return trip,” he said. “This further imprints on the kids the notion they are criminals, as if the whole Juvenile Hall atmosphere were not enough, complete with sleeping on concrete slabs and using steel toilets.”

Dunlap also described unnecessary rules such as silence when eating, seemingly designed to keep them complacent. “During mealtime, the kids sit at tables, huddled around their trays, forbidden to speak to one another,” Dunlap said. “Silent kids are easier to manage.  And if they transgress by speaking and receive room time, they become even easier to manage.  Win-win.”

Another public defender highlighted the mental health crises many youth experiences, stating that last year there were several attempted suicide attempts, which resulted in at least two hospitalizations. 

Those who voiced opposition to the plan to shut down the hall included — oddly — both the local and state chapters of the NAACP, who voiced frustration that “they weren’t consulted.” One member claimed Walton himself — who was incarcerated as a youth, and who is now a politician — is an example of the success of juvenile halls, an allegation Walton later called “absurd.” 

Half a dozen “counselors” — what they call guards at Juvenile Hall — also spoke on the record. Some voiced concerns about losing their jobs and challenged the narrative that abuse was happening inside the walls of the hall. Some stated that they’ve seen Juvenile Hall significantly help kids, while others warned of rampant youth crime running unchecked if the facility closes. 

“I hear your dedication and your passion,” Supervisor Vallie Brown told them. “But I also hear from the community. We need to find out what’s happening before they go into Juvenile Hall. When we’re looking at funding, we need to look at how we keep them out of the Juvenile system. The current situation at the hall is not working. There need to be changes. These are kids.” 

“If you don’t believe me, if you don’t want to listen to my colleagues, at least listen to the young people we heard today,” Walton told the crowd before the vote. “This is not an attack on the staff. This is an attack on the system. We are not eliminating programs that work. If you read the legislation, if you listen to what we’re saying, we’re proposing an alternative custody experience that does a better job for our folks.” 

But in the end, the most powerful testimony by far was from those young people who have been incarcerated in Juvenile Hall themselves. 

“It’s been six months since I’ve been in Juvenile Hall,” stated 18-year-old Leticia Silot. “I’ve been incarcerated there multiple times, and it was back to back to back until the Young Women’s Freedom Center started visiting me. My mom is a single parent and couldn’t visit me so I was always in my cell. They put me on a job when I got out in this program to empower women … I never really had that. It was a different experience for me. Now I’m about to graduate. I have a job. Juvenile Hall did not help me at all. Sitting in that cell tore me apart. I couldn’t even see outside, the windows were blurry. Hearing that door shut, that’s all I remember. 

“Please shut it down,” she added. “Please just shut it down.”

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