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‘Super disappointed’: SF Juvenile Hall’s future in limbo

A young woman works on the cleanup crew following dinner at San Francisco’s juvenile hall on June 23, 1996. | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Two years after San Francisco’s juvenile hall was slated to close, questions remain over how that closure might come to fruition. The city may instead build a new detention center on the same site, a reflection of California’s decision to close state detention facilities as much as philosophical questions over how to handle young offenders.

Under a 2019 plan, the 150-bed juvenile detention center near Twin Peaks was slated to close after the city recorded a big drop in youth crime. Only a year later, California moved to shut down state-run youth prisons, proposing to send violent offenders back to their respective counties—a decision that called into question San Francisco’s ability to close its facility. 

At a Youth Commission hearing on Monday, city officials reported 29 kids in juvenile detention. Of those, 23 are there on a short-term basis, with a median stay of less than a week. Only six are there long-term, per court order. In spite of that small population, a stay in juvenile hall is hardly easy: In January, a 14-year-old detainee attempted suicide, prompting renewed calls for the facility to close at last. 

Monday’s meeting saw a conflict between two visions of the future of juvenile detention. Grappling with whether or not to completely transform the existing structure into a rehabilitation center on the same site, city officials clashed with community organizers who criticized a lack of youth voices with direct experience in the carceral system. With perceptions about increased crime growing, the discussion touched on topics like how to separate different groups of young offenders, and how many beds the future sites may need.

A young man sits inside his cell at San Francisco's juvenile hall on June 23, 1996. | Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

San Francisco’s Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Katherine Miller cautioned against limiting the number of beds to 30. Juvenile hall must have sufficient space, not only to separate kids who don’t get along but also to ensure they aren’t sent to another county for want of room.

“Local jurisdictions have to now figure out what the resolutions are,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of room between what the state tells us we have to do and what we can come up with.”

Mayor London Breed’s administration has allocated sufficient funding to hire an architect to do preliminary designs, but Miller said there’s not enough to construct an entirely new facility. To do that, the city would have to start at square one.

Tracy Gallardo, a legislative aide to Supervisor Shamann Walton who was once detained in juvenile hall, is in the camp pushing for a separate rehabilitation facility for kids. She cites the current juvenile justice system’s lack of mental health beds, group homes and diversion practices to keep minors who haven’t been convicted of violent crimes out of jail and in community programs that provide crisis intervention and case management.

“We know there needs to be a place, because kids commit crimes,” Gallardo said. “What we’re saying is there should be a facility that is a rehabilitative model. I am super disappointed at where we’re at today.”

The Youth Commission, a 17-person body composed of people aged 12 to 23 that advises the Board of Supervisors, sought answers on the diversion attempts by the District Attorney’s Office to prevent youth from being detained at the current facility. The Public Defender’s Office said charge filings have gone up and diversion referrals are down since Brooke Jenkins replaced Chesa Boudin in June 2022. 

“There’s a lack of transparency, quite frankly, about what’s happening to these kids that aren’t being referred to these diversion programs,” said Emily Nguyen, chair of the Youth Commission, at the meeting. 

Tiffany Sutton, who oversees the juvenile division at the District Attorney’s Office, said she and her colleagues are trying to find additional partners for diversion programs. 

Jenkins “is very focused on concentrating on prevention and intervention before a youth even gets to our office,” Sutton said. “If we can prevent youth from even coming in front of a judge, we’ve won 100% of the battle.”

Frustration with the unfulfilled promises was also evident at Monday’s hearing. 

“There has been a critical lack of community input in this process,” said Lucero Herrera, lead organizer with the Young Women’s Freedom Center. “From the beginning of our campaign to shutter juvenile hall, we have been clear that it is impossible to do so meaningfully and transformatively, without the voices of young people who have been directly impacted.”