San Francisco to Approve Closure of Juvenile Hall

The city has been spending $13 million a year on a youth jail that is never more than a quarter full.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to shut down the county’s Juvenile Hall by 2021, in a landmark move for criminal justice reform. The legislation has sped through City Hall; it was only put forth by Supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, and Matt Haney in April. The Board voted 10-1 to shut the youth jail down, with Supervisor Catherine Stefani in dissent.

“All of the changes that people like myself have made in our lives have been a result of mentorship, and quality after-school programs… but it has never been because of time spent in Juvenile Hall,” Walton, who spent time incarcerated as a youth. “We are proposing an alternative that offers a true opportunity for young people to be rehabilitated… Individualized plans that focus on the person, and not the infraction.”

“The biggest indicator of whether a kid is going to spend time in jail as an adult is whether or not they spend time in juvenile hall as a kid,” Ronen said. “We spend $13 million on a jail that is three-quarters empty all the time when kids come out worse than when they went in … It’s a punishment-based system for children, many of whom have been traumatized throughout their young life, and many of whom suffer from mental health issues. And yet they are detained by themselves in a locked concrete cell for 11 hours a day.”

Supervisor Ahsha Safai sided strongly with those who drafted the legislation. “We have a culture of incarceration and it is no secret that it is disproportionately youth of color who are caught in this vicious web,” he said. “We incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, it’s time for a change.” 

Stefani stated that she shared the sentiments of her colleagues, but in the end, was the sole supervisor on the Board who voted against the proposal. Instead of closing Juvenile Hall, she proposed the city wait for the recommendations from the Mayor’s Juvenile Justice Reform Blue Ribbon Panel before making a decision. “I do believe this piece of legislation is well-intentioned,” she says. “I’m on the same page on why we’re doing this, but when we flip the page to the solution I’m having a hard time seeing that. I’m not in a place yet where I can definitively close it.”

While it was the politicians of San Francisco who made this closure official, local criminal justice reform advocates and formerly-incarcerated youth have advocated for alternatives to locked facilities for years. SF Weekly profiled one such group, the Young Women’s Freedom Center, last month. Staff members from the center — many of whom had spent time in Juvenile Hall — described traumatic conditions that left lasting impacts on their mental health. What turned their lives around, they said, was community-based organizations that helped them get through school, manage their challenging home environments, and offer them alternatives to behaviors that ended in incarceration.

“Juvenile Hall did not help me at all. Sitting in that cell tore me apart,” said the Young Women’s Freedom Center’s Leticia Silot, who is 18. “I couldn’t even see outside, the windows were blurry. Hearing that door shut, that’s all I remember.” 

The closure of Juvenile Hall is long overdue. A recent study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University stated that incarcerating young people increases the likelihood that they’ll go to jail by 23 percent. And, the majority of people in San Francisco’s youth jail are Black or Brown, and raised in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. It’s a systemic failure that starts young. 

“When we first started looking at the data on what it would look like to close Juvenile Hall, we realized it’s not just Juvenile Hall. It’s this larger system,” says Jessica Nowlan, the executive director of the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “Of the women and nonbinary folk we interviewed who were Black, 71 percent of mothers had been incarcerated, and 82 percent of fathers. Seventy-six percent of the young people we interviewed had been checked up on by Child Protective Services. We live in a city and county that is criminalizing the existence of Black people and Brown people and poor people.”

While Tuesday’s vote was a landmark decision, there is still one more vote to pass, and almost two years to go before the hall is shuttered, and there’s a lot of work left to be done. Supervisor Norman Yee drove home the point that alternatives to Juvenile Hall must be created before our current system is dismantled, requesting progress reports every six months and a comprehensive plan to be presented to the full Board by June 2021.

Exactly what to spend the millions of dollars currently being poured into the jail on needs to be determined, but Walton has full faith in the community to identify successful programs. “We would never put a system in place that is worse than our current Juvenile Hall,” he says.

Ronen shares his vision. “We can do better by our kids here in San Francisco,” she says. “We’re not afraid to be the first city in America to do so.”

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