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Celebrated plan to close SF’s juvenile hall in tatters as city moves to build new facility

An empty housing unit at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco on Thursday, September 20, 2018. | Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Nearly three years after the Board of Supervisors voted to close the city’s 150-bed juvenile hall in favor of “community-based alternatives,” the mayor has approved a cost analysis for building a smaller, less jail-like facility on the current site near Sutro Tower, the official in charge of the facility said.

The plan is the latest twist in an acrimonious three-year process where advocates aiming to end child incarceration collided with the realities of state requirements for detaining youthful offenders in secure facilities—and with San Francisco’s infamous inability to get anything done promptly.

The new building plan favored by Mayor London Breed’s administration would represent a big departure from the much-touted 2019 legislation that called for the elimination of juvenile hall in the name of decarceration. It was supposed to be closed down in 2021.

Today, there are 14 young inmates still at juvenile hall, but no agreed plan on where they should go. On May 19, the Board of Supervisors will begin weighing options that include other possible sites for a new facility, an aide to board President Shamman Walton said.

The 2019 legislation, which Walton sponsored, called for a blue-ribbon commission to design and create a “small non-institutional secure center,” reassign juvenile hall staff to different city jobs and expand youth programs to absorb the coming diaspora. Walton had deemed juvenile hall ineffective and “a huge waste of City funds.” 

The newly proposed facility could fulfill some of the earlier vision, said chief juvenile probation officer Katharine Miller, a mayoral appointee, who discussed the idea with The Standard in an interview.

“We could have programming, as well as community organizations being here, that could really change the way we do things from the perspective of being a center of community instead of confinement. I think that, to me, we are winding up with a juvenile hall that is the right space and the right design, for young people,” she said.

Still, Miller’s proposals are a far cry from what advocates hoped would be in place by now: the worst juvenile offenders living in a home-like environment, the rest no longer locked up, and San Francisco standing as a pioneer among big cities by ending youth incarceration, according to testimony supporting the legislation.

Yet the Close Juvenile Hall Working Group, as the blue-ribbon commission was called, ended up achieving none of this.

Public Comment Proves Unhelpful

Two years of working group meetings coincided with the coronavirus pandemic’s remote-work phase, which ended up contributing to acrimony and frustration. As locked-down San Franciscans spent more time online mulling national political causes, they also found they could spend their online hours weighing in at government meetings via remote public comment. A significant number of these people tuned into Close Juvenile Hall Working Group meetings to vent about their favored causes, according to sessions reviewed by The Standard.

“It was like a flock of birds. The direction kept changing. We had George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Me Too,” said Tracy Gallardo, legislative aide to Walton. “The people who thought Juvenile Hall was important would have previously schlepped down to City Hall. Now, though, people who cared about that and other issues could tune into more civic meetings than they could have gone to before.”

Proposals to use property owned by a youth mental health facility inspired “me too” commentary regarding a staff sexual misconduct issue from the facility’s past. Measures short of total youth decarceration angered those focusing on high rates of non-white imprisonment.

Advocates became increasingly frustrated with panel members who would bring up state requirements for secure confinement of convicted violent offenders. Adding to these challenges was a 2020 state bill that called for shutting down youth prisons, which typically house offenders with longer sentences. San Francisco’s juvenile hall, which currently houses three such youths, will have to take up the slack.

After two years, 40 hours of meetings, dozens of presentations and multiple consultants’ reports, the working group in November handed in an 88-page report that hadn’t moved much beyond Walton’s original vision. 

The report’s answer to Walton’s mandate for the group to “design and create a small non-institutional secure center,” for example, was expressed this way: “San Francisco should review the capacity analyses to determine the number of secure beds that are needed and the most appropriate homes.”

Edgewood Location Considered Anew

For Gallardo, the wheel-spinning does not represent total failure. In San Francisco, a city known for its hyper-democracy, spending time letting people publically blow off steam is a requisite for any goal.

“We’re disappointed we’re at the place we are now and we don’t have other options to consider, and we will probably have to extend the date,” Gallardo said. “But it is a process that has to be done in a city like San Francisco to ensure that all voices get to share what they think.”

Gallardo said Walton’s office will push for city staff to scour real-estate offerings for additional possible sites. Now that the heat has died down, his office will revisit the proposal to use property owned by the youth mental health facility—Edgewood Center for Children and Families—in the Sunset neighborhood.

And Miller, for her part, has added to her department’s budget funds for an architect to price out creating a facility at whatever site the Board of Supervisors decides is suitable. She’s keeping her hopes up that the city will build a new, if more humane, incarceration building atop the old one.

“I like starting fresh and doing what we want. I like the idea of leveraging the workable space we have on this campus,” she said.