Tomorrow San Francisco May Repeal and Replace Juvenile Incarceration

Tomorrow the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is poised to pass a measure that would close its last juvenile detention facility by the end of 2021. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Probation Department.

On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is poised to shut down its juvenile hall and leave in its place a plan that would largely rely on community-based services to deal with young offenders.

If the measure passes, it would make San Francisco the largest county in the state — and perhaps in the nation — to operate without a juvenile hall-type facility. A smaller, non-institutional center would take its place. While the city’s advocacy community has roundly supported the proposal, San Francisco’s chief probation officer has opposed the plan.

“There is no national model for a shift of this magnitude,” San Francisco Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance wrote in a letter last month. “If no plan is developed prior to the deadline, the closure of juvenile hall could place the county in the position of being required to develop an agreement with another county to house San Francisco youth.”

But Daniel Macallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said that Nance’s fears were misplaced. Over the past 20 years, he said that San Francisco has developed an array of community agencies that are already providing services that were once the purview of the probation department.

“The ingredients are all in place for this to be a success,” Macallair said. “San Francisco is resource rich. There is a no reason why this cannot be done and done well here.”

In April, the San Francisco supervisors unanimously agreed to shutter the county’s last juvenile detention facility after a San Francisco Chronicle series pointed to a shrinking number of youth detained at the juvenile halls across the state even as the costs to incarcerate them there remain staggeringly high. Now legislation authored by Supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney would set a hard date on the closure of the 150-bed facility: December 31, 2021.

The legislation also lays out a plan for what comes after the closure of the city’s juvenile hall.

“We would never put a system in place that is worse than our current juvenile hall,” said Supervisor Walton, who himself spent several stints in juvenile hall as a youngster. “And what we are proposing is an alternative to juvenile hall that also provides a true opportunity for young people to be rehabilitated.”

According to city documents, San Francisco spent $13.3 million on its juvenile hall during the fiscal year 2017-2018 despite a population that dropped as low as 40 youth in December 2018. Thirty percent of those youth were being held for a misdemeanor offense, while about 50 percent were detained while awaiting a court-ordered placement. With a declining number of youth in the hall over the past decade, the average cost per youth detained in the juvenile hall has risen from $123,400 in 2009 to $279,500 in 2019.

The San Francisco plan calls for the board to create a working group that would guide the closure effort. The 13-member group would be charged with strengthening and expanding community-based alternatives to incarceration and setting up a “rehabilitative, non-institutional place of detention” for youth who are statutorily required to be placed in a secure facility.

The alternative detention center for the placement of court-involved youth would be in a location approved by the presiding judge of the San Francisco’s juvenile court and would be “a safe and supportive home-like environment, which shall not be deemed to be, nor treated as, a penal institution, which shall conform to all applicable state and federal regulations,” according to the legislation. The alternative detention center would be available for both court-adjudicated youth as well as young people waiting for their cases to be heard in juvenile court for alleged offenses. According to advocates, it might hold between 10 and 15 beds and would be intensely staffed, with no youth detained in a cell.

The working group would also be charged with creating a reinvestment plan to reroute funds that have been traditionally spent on San Francisco’s juvenile hall, instead allocating them on community-based alternatives to detention, the alternative center, and mental health and academic support programs for juvenile justice-involved youth. That includes setting up the Youth Justice Reinvestment Fund, a special city fund to receive fee revenue dedicated to community-based alternatives to juvenile detention and other funding.

The plan also calls for greater investment in community-based residential or day programs. That includes boosting housing resources for justice-involved female youth who cannot return to their homes, a need since the 2018 closure of the Catholic Charities San Francisco Girls Home Shelter, according to the legislation. The working group would help create funding plans to expand successful existing mental health, educational, employment opportunities and mentoring programs for juvenile-justice involved youth and create new programs to address gaps in services.

The working group would also develop a plan to transition juvenile hall staff to jobs in other city departments or at the alternative center.

In a letter sent to the supervisors last month, Nance urged them to delay the closure plans and to scale back the working group’s goals laid out in the legislation.

He credited the decline of San Francisco’s juvenile hall population with the successful implementation of reforms by the county’s probation department, which could be endangered by the board measure.

“In the absence of a clearly articulated plan to replace the existing structure, I am concerned that dismantling juvenile hall could serve to destabilize and adversely impact overall juvenile justice system operations,” Nance wrote.

But Supervisors supporting the replacement plan remain confident that the working group will be ready to tackle the challenge.

“This legislation is a long time coming,” said Supervisor Hillary Ronen at a May 16 meeting. “For years, community-based organizations, young people and families have been asking the city to stop the inhumane and ineffective practice of jailing children in cells with concrete slabs for beds. They have asked that our city leaders imagine something better for our city’s most vulnerable children, something that could actually help them and their families find stability and enter down a positive path. That day has finally come.”

San Francisco Mayor London Breed has not voiced support for the closure of the juvenile hall. In March, she formed a juvenile justice blue ribbon panel, which counts Nance among its members, with the goal of reforming practices at the juvenile hall rather than its outright closure.

The measure to close the juvenile hall would need the backing of eight San Francisco supervisors at tomorrow’s meeting to override any potential mayoral veto from Breed.

If the measure passes, Macallair of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice said that the city would be challenged to develop better systems of coordination between community agencies serving young people involved with the justice system. Another challenge might be lingering resentment from convention-bound bureaucracies that see community-based organizations as a threat, he said.

“Community agencies are not a threat,” Macallair said. “Services delivered by community agencies operated in the community. That’s the future. And that’s what the future should be — not just a law enforcement approach for young people.”

This article has been updated to make clear that a small non-institutional facility run by the probation department would offer secure confinement to a small number of youth under the replacement plan.

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