By Taylor Walker, WitnessLA, February 22, 2021
On Tuesday, June 4, 2019, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted in favor of legislation to shutter the local juvenile hall by December 2021.
The ordinance, which SF supes authored in partnership with the Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC), made SF the first major urban jurisdiction to choose to abolish juvenile incarceration.
The city-county’s lone 150-bed youth lockup is already so close to empty — on August 15, 2020, there were 13 people inside — that the amount taxpayers are spending per-year, per-kid incarcerated is nearing $2 million, in a $23.5 million juvenile hall budget, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. There are often more cooks and food workers than there are kids in the hall, which has 90 staff members.
Still, abolishing juvenile incarceration altogether remains a complex undertaking. The endeavor in SF is further complicated by the impending closure of the state’s youth prison system, the Division of Juvenile Justice. Under the planned closure, kids and young adults currently incarcerated in state facilities will be shuffled back into the custody of their home counties.
This transfer of responsibility, according to the Young Women’s Freedom Center, has the potential to “reverse local wins to shut down juvenile detention facilities by requiring those counties to house this small number of young people.” But it doesn’t have to upend reforms.
In a new report, YWFC, through its Freedom Research Institute, illuminates how local youth have experienced and been failed by San Francisco’s juvenile justice system. The testimonies, the group says, show how critical it is that SF and jurisdictions across the nation move quickly to replace their harmful juvenile incarceration systems with community-based care and treatment models.
The 149-page report, titled “Through Their Eyes,” features the stories of fifty-one young people who have experienced San Francisco’s juvenile justice system. As the center’s name suggests, the report focuses on girls and women — both cisgender and transgender (cisgender, or “cis,” describes a non-trans person, someone whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth) — and transgender boys and young men, as well as youth “gender expansive” youth who exist outside the traditional male-female gender system.
These young people’s “expertise must be the center of our collective work to realize freedom and liberation for everyone,” said Jessica Nowlan, the center’s executive director. “We can achieve radical change only if we listen to young people’s vision of a different future.”
Overrepresented and Traumatized
Data shows that Black kids and teens are drastically overrepresented in juvenile justice systems, as in most areas of the criminal justice system.
Black youth make up 14 percent of the national population under age 18, yet black girls account for 35 percent of the kids held in girls’ lockups. (Black boys account for 42 percent of all boys held in lockup.)
In 2019, Black girls made up 73 percent of “unduplicate” juvenile hall bookings of girls (not counting instances in which the same kids were booked more than once in a year) in SF, according to YWFC.
Members of the LGBTQ community also make up an outsized portion of the nation’s incarcerated youth. In this case, approximately 41 percent of the individuals interviewed as part of the study said they identified as part of the LGBTQ community.
For LGBTQ teens and young adults, incarceration often arises from issues related to being unhoused. While LGBTQ-identifying youth make up just 3 percent of the total youth population, they make up 40 percent of the nation’s homeless youth, the report said.
Out of the 51 individuals who shared their experiences as “experts” for this project, 67 percent said they worked in the underground street economy as minors to meet basic needs.
Approximately 30 percent of the kids were arrested for such actions, which the researchers classified as survival crimes, including sex work, and shoplifting clothes, food, and other necessities.
The youth also reported having experienced high rates of childhood trauma.
The ten-question Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire, which has become the benchmark for measuring childhood trauma, asks whether a person has experienced certain events, including abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, and parental divorce and incarceration.
Those who participated in the research report had an average ACEs score of 6.34 — a rate far higher than the general population.
(In California, approximately 62% of residents have experienced at least one adverse childhood event, but only 16% report four or more ACEs. Less than 5 percent have experienced six or more.)
For girls, abuse is one of the main pathways into the criminal justice system, the report noted.
For girls, abuse is one of the main pathways into the criminal justice system, the report noted.
Incarcerated girls are four times as likely as boys to report having experienced sexual abuse. “The juvenile delinquency system most commonly detains girls for running away, substance abuse, and truancy; all three of these behaviors are the most common symptoms of sexual and physical abuse,” wrote the report’s authors.
Entangled in Two Systems
Half of the youth experts had also spent time in the child welfare system. Their average age of entry into foster care was 6.8 years old.
Twenty percent of the youth included in the study were charged with their first offense when school staff, a foster parent, or a care provider called the police to handle an internal incident. Schools and foster care providers, the participants said, were often quick to call law enforcement, rather than work to de-escalate and resolve conflicts in-house.
One participant, Lucy Books, said she ran away after being physically abused in a foster home, and had no privacy in which to tell her social worker during home check-ins. She also reported being bullied at school for being gay, and getting suspended for getting into numerous fights related to the bullying. After one particular stint in juvenile hall, Lucy was sent to a group home where she says she missed out on school and continued to get into fights. One of those fights landed her back in juvenile hall.
Other young people YWFC researchers surveyed said they, too, had to run away from home or from their foster care placement to escape abuse, fearing they would not be believed if they reported it.
Pathways to Incarceration
Due to “being underage with limited resources and options available to them,” the report said, the “Experts entered the underground street economy while running away; some engaged in sex work or became trafficked.”
Some teens said their first encounters with the juvenile justice system occurred when they were charged with prostitution while being sex trafficked as minors. Cynthia Harrison spent three months in the SF juvenile hall on prostitution charges the first time she was incarcerated. Cynthia was twelve years old.
As a minor, Reina Argueta received a lengthy adult sentence for defending herself against the man who trafficked her.
Other young people faced sentences enhanced by questionable circumstances.
Because Ann Johnson used her shoe during a fight with another student who had bullied her, she was charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Jane Lin’s charges should have been for petty theft inside a department store, but because she had a foil bag with her — deemed a burglary tool — she faced more serious charges and a longer sentence.
“Others described petty theft incidents where the courts charged them with a more serious crime because they had physical contact with security guards who restrained them forcibly,” the researchers wrote.
Some young people were funneled into the justice system by way of school police and harsh discipline in a system they told researchers was set up for their failure.
Brittany Love, a trans girl, was expelled in eighth grade for fighting a boy who was calling her gay slurs and “antagonizing” her. When she tried to seek adult intervention, “the teacher would not listen ever,” Brittany said. Later, she said she faced further threats and harm when authorities placed her in the boys’ unit in juvenile hall.
In addition to being locked up for fighting in her group home, Lucy Brooks told the report authors that she was re-incarcerated for missing a 6:00 p.m. curfew while going to school, probation meetings, and trying to work — all while using public transportation. She spent 28 days in juvenile hall for the violation.
Other youth described similar instances in which they were pushed deeper into the criminal legal system after violating the burdensome terms of their probation, which often cut into school and work time.
Missing one day of school while on probation landed one teen, Shemey Scott, back in lockup.
A Holding Pen for Foster Kids
Several of the study’s young experts also told researchers that they were placed in the juvenile hall not because they had been accused of wrongdoing, but because San Francisco’s child welfare system needed a place to hold them while they waited for an opening at a group home.
“Experts clearly delineated they were not being detained for a case but rather because the system could not find an out-of-home placement,” the report said. One youth reported waiting eight months in lockup at age fourteen to be approved for a group home placement.
The study participants said that group home representatives would come to interview them in juvenile hall to determine whether they would be a good fit for the home, a process they described as stressful and dehumanizing. “They make you feel like you at the pound or something,” Stacey Freedom said. While waiting for a placement, she said, it would be better to be allowed to remain at home with your family. “I had a few interviews, but I didn’t get picked,” she said. When she finally did get selected 10 months later, Stacey said, “I was hella happy. I was 13. I went to Children’s Home in Stockton.”
Because of her status as a trans girl, Brittany Love said she, too, sat in juvenile hall waiting for foster care placements. She entered the foster care system at age six. By the time she was 18, she had been with 14 different foster families and group homes. “Brittany worried about her safety in most of her group home placements, and went on-the-run from the majority of them,” the report said, cycling between group homes, homelessness, and juvenile lockup between the ages of 14 and 18.
While inside San Francisco’s juvenile hall, the youth experts reported experiencing unnecessary solitary confinement, dehumanizing shackling, excessive physical force from guards — “a culture of force and intimidation” — and poor medical and mental health care, among other troubling issues.
“In San Francisco, here they’re hands-on,” Chy Smacks said of the guards inside the juvenile hall. “It’s how they deal with us. You come out bruised and sprained and stuff like that … They walk in, let everybody see they’re putting their gloves on, and you know what’s going to happen.”
Among the experts, 78 percent reported that they had been shackled at some point while in the juvenile hall and while in court. Yet, most were not charged with or convicted of a violent offense. Many described it as unnecessarily harmful — humiliating and even traumatizing.
After being arrested for petty theft, Cynthia Jackson said that her arms and legs were shackled, an incongruous response to her charges. “I felt like a prisoner walking up in court with that orange suit on,” she said. “Shackled as a thief?”
Alexis Ferrero reported nearly falling on her stomach while pregnant because she had to shuffle in leg shackles into the courtroom. After the near-accident, she cried at the thought of falling and losing her baby.
While solitary confinement is not formally allowed in San Francisco’s youth lockup, Alexis and a number of other youth reported that they were left in de-facto isolation in their cells, allowed out only for 20 to 30 minutes per day.
“You can go out and take a shower, and then you got to stay in your room, you got to eat in your room and stuff,” CJ Mills said. “Then while everybody else was out, you got to be in. You can probably come out and probably read a book or something for like 15, 20 minutes, and then you got to go back in. You don’t get no phone calls, none of that.”
One teen said health workers failed to help her through withdrawal from drugs. Another said she was not allowed to have her inhaler. Others said they were forced to take psychotropic drugs.
“I don’t remember having a therapist,” Ruth Gordon told YWFC. “I got pills in there, but no therapy.” Some who did see therapists said sessions were inconsistently scheduled and they worried the things they said to the therapists might be repeated to the courts or to their probation officer.
The study’s experts — half of whom experienced previous sexual abuse — also shared stories of feeling extremely uncomfortable around male probation officers.
Those who spoke with YWFC said they “felt very uncomfortable with male probation officers walking around their units and that male staff did not try to leave the unit while they were showering or provide them with privacy while going to the bathroom.”
“When you’re showering you could see [the men], Grissly Rodriguez said. “So, I feel like if you could see them, they could see you.” Alexis Ferrero said that people could look directly into her cell, making using the bathroom a very stressful event.
Grissly was one of a number of youth who emphasized that “they shouldn’t have a guy, a male counselor working in the girls’ units.”
A Community-Based System of Care and Dignity
Those who provided testimonies of their time in juvenile hall helped YWFC develop a handful of recommendations to reduce harm caused by the juvenile justice and foster care systems.
Child welfare system-involved youth, the youth experts said, should be allowed to participate in decisions about where they live. In addition to being able to self-advocate, they should also be allowed to remain as close to their community as possible, said the report, noting that some youth were sent as far away as other states.
The probation department should also cut down on “excessive monitoring” — including embarrassing visits at school from their probation officers — and the unrealistic requirements of their probation terms, the violation of which often sent them right back to juvenile hall. Probation, some said, should instead focus on helping youth develop interview and job skills and obtain employment post-incarceration.
While youth “struggled to envision a reformed juvenile delinquency system because it caused so much lasting harm in their lives,” the report says, they came up with some ways they believe adults in positions of authority could have better supported them, including “positive strength-based interactions,” community-based supports, and “services that address root causes.”
“Overall, Experts wanted to be treated with basic human dignity by systems and service providers, and be seen as nuanced individuals, deserving of all the rights and access afforded to their White middle and upper-class peers.”
In the coming months, YWFC plans to publish a follow-up report expanding recommendations for transforming youth justice.