S.F.'s Board of Supervisors Advance Efforts to Close Juvenile Hall in 2021

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 3 years old.
A common area inside San Francisco's Juvenile Hall.  (Courtesy of The Design Partnership)

Updated 6:00 p.m., Thursday, May 16

A controversial proposal to close San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall in over two years cleared its first major hurdle on Thursday, with a Board of Supervisors committee unanimously voting to advance it to the full board.

The legislation, authored by Supervisors Shamann Walton, Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, would shutter Juvenile Hall by the end of 2021 and encourage the development of alternatives to jailing young offenders. The full board will hear the proposal on June 4.

Walton said the current system prepares young people for what he calls the prison pipeline.

"We would never put a system in place that is worse than our current Juvenile Hall. And what we are proposing is an alternative to Juvenile Hall that also provides a true opportunity for young people to be rehabilitated," he said.

Closing the facility without a clear plan for its replacement would put young offenders in the criminal justice system at risk, the city's top juvenile justice official said in a letter to the board on Tuesday.

Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance is urging supervisors — a majority of whom back a bill to shut down the Twin Peaks facility — to rethink their proposal.

"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 said in his letter.

Ronen, who immediately pushed back on Nance's letter, said San Francisco can keep the public safe and ensure better outcomes for youth without the current facility.

"I've been inside Juvenile Hall and it is a jail like any jail in this country," she said. "Kids do not get outside. They do not breathe fresh air very often. They are locked in a tiny room by themselves over 11 hours a day. Many are suffering from severe mental health disorders. It is punitive in nature."

Ronen added that the facility does not prioritize rehabilitation: "And we should not be jailing kids — it is that simple."

The proposal calls for the creation of a "small rehabilitative non-institutional place of detention" for young offenders who are required by state law to be in a secure facility.

The measure was prompted by a San Francisco Chronicle series showing that violent felony juvenile arrest rates in San Francisco had declined by 87 percent since 1990, while spending on youth corrections has gone up.

Eight supervisors — a veto-proof majority — have signed on to the legislation, which means it will take effect if it passes the full board.

The city is now spending an average of $279,500 per youth to run an institution that is serving less than 50 kids at a time, down from an average of 123 kids in 2008, according to city officials. They say that cost, which was $123,400 per youth in 2009, has increased 127% in the last decade.


By 2013, the average daily population at Juvenile Hall had dropped to 76, and last year it declined further, to 44. African-American and Hispanic youth have typically made up the vast majority of detainees at the facility, according to Nance.

"Closing the existing facility without a clear alternative denies these marginalized, disenfranchised, and vulnerable youths the very interventions collectively designed to meet their needs," Nance wrote in his letter to supervisors. "African Americans and LatinX youth would be impacted the most."

But the supervisors behind the proposal, and the juvenile justice advocates who endorse it, argue that youth offenders need mentoring and support — not more time in a jail cell.

"We are spending $13 million a year in order to jail about 44 youth at any given time," said Ronen. "And at the same time, study after study shows that the biggest predictor of future incarceration for a youth is whether or not they've been incarcerated as juveniles."

Nance, though, who is part of a panel recently established by San Francisco Mayor London Breed to explore how to reform the city's juvenile justice system, argued he is merely pushing for supervisors to rethink the timeline set out in the bill.

"Strike the Juvenile Hall closure date," he wrote, stressing that the proposal should require adequate time to develop a set of tangible recommendations for alternatives to the facility.

In the meantime, he said, supervisors should direct funds for using vacant space at the facility for inpatient psychiatric care and drug and alcohol treatment, as well as support for chronically homeless teens.

But Ronen rejected that idea, arguing that keeping the facility open creates a "subtle pressure to fill" the empty beds, and that without its closure, San Francisco judges and policymakers won't have the incentive to create alternatives to incarceration.

"Juvenile Hall should always be a short-term placement while a judge is looking for a community-based adequate placement for a youth," she said. "But it's not being used in that way right now. We're sending more kids to Juvenile Hall than we need to."