Juvenile Halls Are Not Our Destiny

San Francisco’s juvenile hall is slated to close in 2021. Photo courtesy of E&S Masonry.

Counties across California are questioning what has thus far been a hallmark element of a flawed juvenile justice system: juvenile halls.

There are many reasons to ask this question at this moment. Juvenile arrests are at historic lows, with arrest rates dropping by 84 percent since 1980. Yet counties are dealing with infrastructure built upon past predictions of juvenile super-predators and juvenile crime that never came to pass. Detention facilities constructed with only security and capacity in mind are now emptying and becoming increasingly expensive to run.

In San Francisco, for example, it costs nearly $270,000 annually to keep one young person behind bars. Smaller counties are closing their juvenile halls, only to have youth be detained in counties hours away from the county courthouse and their families. All the while, research continues to reaffirm prior findings that incarceration of youth is harmful and actually undermines public safety, with youth incarceration increasing the likelihood of adult incarceration by 22 percent.

In response to these mounting realities, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors just voted to approve legislation that will close juvenile hall by 2021. San Mateo County is exploring alternatives to juvenile detention through a committee proposed by the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commission. Supervisors in Yolo County are also considering how to repurpose their county’s juvenile hall.

The closing of these detention facilities presents an extraordinary opportunity to reverse the destructive culture of incarceration that has devastated low-income communities and communities of color, and reinvest funds in community-based options that promote healing and well-being.

Our collective reimagining of what we can do for our young people must not be limited by the system we have now. Unfortunately, officials in charge of these systems argue that juvenile halls are required by law. This argument is both unfortunate and misguided. Because of their unlimited access to confidential data about the youth in their custody, these officials are in a unique position to identify opportunities for innovative reform. But instead, the law is being used as a barrier to hide behind, entrenching the status quo.

For example, probation chiefs in San Francisco and San Mateo counties have said that state law requires counties to detain youth who commit felony offenses. This is not wholly true. The law they rely upon, Welfare and Institutions Code section 625.3, refers only to a small subset of youth charged with serious felony offenses involving violence. Many felony charges in juvenile court do not involve any kind of violence. Moreover, even for this small subset of felony charges, the law only requires that such youth be brought before a judicial officer who can make a determination about release or detention.

Their statements also obscure the reality of juvenile detention in California. In our current system, a youth arrested in the evening or on the weekend might spend nearly a week in custody before being brought before a court, despite a 1991 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Riverside v. McLaughlin, requiring judicial review within 48 hours of detention. And our county juvenile detention facilities are not filled with youth only charged with serious felonies — a significant number are charged with lesser offenses, including misdemeanors.

Officials have also pointed to state regulations that set parameters for juvenile detention facilities as another reason for keeping youth jails. While it’s true that the Board of State and Community Corrections does establish minimum standards for the operation of juvenile facilities, counties can go beyond those minimums. Our state regulations allow for innovation and implementation of pilot projects. If our public officials were so inclined, they could approach youth incarceration as a problem to be solved, not a reality to be tolerated.

The system need not look like it does now, operating as a functional equivalent to an adult jail. Current law actually calls for juvenile hall to be “a safe and supportive home-like environment.” The existing facilities and practices — where barbed wire, multiple locked doors, solitary “room” confinementpepper spray, strip searches and shackling are not uncommon — do extensive harm to young people, the vast majority of whom will return home to their families or be released to foster care placements or other unlocked community settings.

With recent advances in scientific research, we now know more than we have ever known about the lasting developmental harm that even short-term incarceration can inflict. For youth who need intervention, we must provide that support without the traumatizing experience of incarceration, which makes young people worse off and works against the system’s rehabilitative and public safety goals.

Momentum is growing to close juvenile halls. As budgets and changing norms shift our conversation on juvenile detention, it is crucial to focus on reinvestment and not superficial change. We should not be satisfied with downsizing juvenile halls just to shift youth to the juvenile hall in the neighboring county, or with repurposing halls as locked long-term facilities in the guise of treatment and rehabilitation.

The vast personnel and money behind juvenile halls can be redirected toward a holistic approach to healing and positive youth development that will actually promote long-term health and well-being. This approach requires expanding services in the community that lift up the strengths of youth and their families and that address their identified needs. Without the voices of directly impacted youth and families at the table, simply closing or repurposing facilities is unlikely to lead to meaningful change.

California’s juvenile system has undergone major changes in the last decade thanks to the work of stakeholders across the spectrum. Other states are watching. The next question must be — what would we, as a society, do if we were not confined by the bureaucratic systems or the concrete walls that we have now? Juvenile halls are not our destiny. If we free our minds, we can free our children.

Meredith Desautels is a staff attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. Ji Seon Song is a Thomas C. Grey fellow and lecturer in law at Stanford Law School.

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