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Teen’s Suicide Attempt Rekindles San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall Shutdown Debate 

Written by Jonah Owen LambPublished Jan. 20, 2023 • 3:53pm
An empty housing unit at Juvenile Hall in San Francisco | Scott Strazzante/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

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The president of San Francisco’s Juvenile Probation Commission is weighing calls for an independent investigation after a 14-year-old attempted to kill himself while in custody last week. 

“I am very concerned about what happened and am exploring the idea of an independent investigation so that we can take whatever corrective actions in terms of policies and additional services that are needed,” said Margaret Brodkin, president of the facility’s oversight body. 

Brodkin said she has been floating the idea of such an investigation since hearing about the incident, but she needs to wait for the commission to act as a whole before proceeding. 

San Francisco Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Katherine Miller said she could not comment on the suicide attempt, which is confidential, as are many details of juvenile criminal cases. 

“We cannot talk about the kids in our care,” Miller said, adding that no such event has occurred during her three-year tenure. “We take any incident like this with the utmost seriousness.” 

The incident has rekindled a debate about closing San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall.

The city’s Youth Guidance Center was slated for closure in 2021, mostly due to a dramatic decline in youth crime. But delays to that plan will keep the facility open for the foreseeable future.   

News of the teen’s suicide attempt now has advocates once again calling for the facility’s closure. 

“My main concern is about the well-being of the young person involved,” Supervisor Shaman Walton said. “I want our young people to be able to thrive, and this is why we need to close the hall and create a more positive environment, where they can receive the support they need to be successful.”

The state is set to shut down all youth prisons by 2023, which will send violent offenders back to the county level. At its peak in 1996, the state held roughly 10,000 youth in its prisons. That number has since shrunk to just over 700 last year. 

In San Francisco and neighboring Alameda County, the dwindling trend of incarcerating children and young adults—who can range from 13 to 25—has been the same for the population of county juvenile facilities. 

While Alameda County’s Juvenile Hall population of roughly 50 has remained the same year over year, San Francisco’s has gone up. 

But this year has featured a relatively small rise in the numbers. San Francisco’s average monthly population for those in juvenile detention rose to 23—a population increase of 44% since last year. 

“Once the pandemic had let up, I just knew it was gonna be some kind of increase,” Commissioner James Spingola said. “Any time you have an increase in the population of young people getting arrested, it’s a concern.” 

As of Jan. 9, county probation officials said, the population was back down to 19.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Or go here for more resources.

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Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at [email protected]


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