San Francisco could be the first urban area in California to eliminate its county-run juvenile hall. This month, San Francisco supervisors introduced legislation that would outline the timeline for the facility’s closure. Soon after, the mayor of San Francisco announced her proposal to create an expert panel to discuss the juvenile justice system in San Francisco. These announcements follow an investigation by the San Francisco Chronicle examining declines in youth crime and high costs of juvenile facilities in California.
The Chronicle’s report clearly demonstrated that youth confinement rates have drastically fallen across California’s counties. Research by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (CJCJ) finds corresponding trends, with youth arrest rates generally declining for the past four decades and reaching historical lows each year since 2007. The Chronicle found that facilities in 2018 were less than half full in 39 of the 43 counties with juvenile facilities in California. Statewide, these facilities are, on average, operating at only at 30 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, the costs of maintaining juvenile facilities has skyrocketed over the past decade. In its closer review of 14 counties, the Chronicle found that annual costs of detaining youth had increased in each county since 2011, ranging from 29 percent to 214 percent. Some California counties are spending as much as $500,000 annually, or $1,400 each day, to confine a youth. After being informed of the investigation’s findings, California state Sen. Nancy Skinner stated that it raised “serious questions about whether we are using public safety funds effectively when juvenile halls around the state are operating at below capacity.”
Just hours after the Chronicle published its findings, three San Francisco supervisors pledged to close San Francisco’s juvenile hall. Supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen, and Matt Haney announced that they would be introducing legislation in April that would establish a task force to lay out the timeline of its closure by the end of 2021.
San Francisco’s juvenile hall follows California’s overall trend of having a low population coupled with a high cost per youth; it has a rated capacity of 150 beds yet its population only includes 47 youth. The cost for San Francisco’s juvenile hall is nearing an annual $266,000 per youth. The San Francisco Probation Department dedicated $11.9 million to the juvenile hall in 2018, an amount that has remained relatively consistent since 2011, even though the average daily population has been cut in half.
Following the announcement from the three supervisors, San Francisco Mayor London Breed announced the creation of an expert panel that will focus on comprehensive and systemwide reform to the juvenile justice system. The panel’s first meeting was this month; members included juvenile justice stakeholders, community-based service providers and individuals and youth with firsthand experience in the juvenile justice system.
Community-based service providers, including CJCJ, praise San Francisco’s leaders for pushing forward on an issue that has long been overlooked. The timing to close San Francisco’s juvenile hall has never been better; the cost of maintaining the facility is at an all-time high and its population is at an all-time low.
Keeping hall open could be worsening problem
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The closure of San Francisco’s juvenile facility will provide an opportunity to invest in more effective and cost-efficient approaches to rehabilitating our youth. Services provided by community-based organizations are extremely effective in meeting the needs of youth and their families in a culturally relevant and trauma-informed way. Among the many community-based resources in San Francisco, CJCJ’s direct services include case management and therapeutic interventions.
In addition to the demonstrated effectiveness of community programs, juvenile facilities expose youth to trauma by removing them from their homes and limiting contact with their family supports. In December 2018, the Board of Supervisors held a special Public Safety & Neighborhood Services committee meeting to discuss current issues in the local juvenile justice system. The meeting’s public comment consisted of justice-involved youth and representatives from community-based organizations, both discussing their personal experience with the effectiveness of community programs and their many concerns with juvenile facilities.
In December 2018, 70 percent of the facility went unused, leading county leaders to question the necessity of this investment. Of the 40 youths who were detained or confined in December, nearly a third were facing misdemeanor charges and 90 percent were diagnosed with a mental health issue. With this, not only is the facility going largely unused, but there is also a serious question of why the current population is institutionalized in the first place.
This is even more concerning given the growing body of research that shows that any period of time in confinement is harmful to youth. A 2015 study by economists at Brown University and MIT found that incarcerating young people increased the likelihood that they would go to jail as an adult by 23 percent; even one experience in juvenile hall can lead to a higher likelihood of future involvement in the justice system.
San Francisco is overfunding a minimally populated institution that could be making the issue even worse. The juvenile hall has evolved into a system that seems to exist simply to sustain itself.
San Francisco has chance to send message
As counties like San Francisco consider closing juvenile facilities amid declining populations, state juvenile facilities are also faced with pressure to close amid increasing evidence that their punitive practices are ineffective and inhumane. Alternatively, state and local policies that increasingly emphasize rehabilitation instead of punishment and incarceration has coincided with a 71% decline in total youth arrests and a 57% decline in arrests for violent offenses from 2010 to 2016.
The rehabilitative programs currently offered by community-based organizations in San Francisco’s juvenile hall can be implemented better in the community. Closing down the juvenile hall would protect youth from the trauma of confinement and redirect them to community-based programs that can continue to provide high-quality services including therapy, mentoring, case management and family engagement. San Francisco can better serve its highest-needs youth with its juvenile hall shut down.
San Francisco has an opportunity to lead the state and the nation in reimagining its approach to juvenile justice and send a clear message about abandoning outdated punitive approaches in favor of more effective rehabilitative practices.
Alex Barrett-Shorter is a communications and policy intern at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco.