Reform Youth Justice

Chesa Boudin is committed to a safe, fair and effective youth justice system that emphasizes building on young people’s strengths in their home communities, not confining them in brutal, expensive and ineffective youth prisons. As District Attorney, he will make sure that we focus our resources on helping youth caught up in the juvenile justice system turn their lives around in their home communities, rather than wasting away in correctional facilities.

The Problem

Numerous studies have found that involvement in the juvenile justice system causes youth to have worse outcomes. One study that rigorously examined the effects of the juvenile justice system found that incarceration itself resulted in negative consequences for youth (Aizer and Doyle, 2015). The report states, “juvenile incarceration results in large decreases in the likelihood of high school completion and large increases in the likelihood of adult incarceration.” Another study found that doing nothing with youth who commit delinquent acts resulted in better outcomes than placing youth in the juvenile justice system (Gatti, Tremblay and Vitar, 2009). The study went on to find that the more intensive engagement the system has with youth, the worse their outcomes.

San Francisco’s system is not immune from these national outcomes. In 2018, the local NBC news affiliate aired an expose of the SF Juvenile Probation Department (JPD) revealing that numerous youth who do not meet the risk threshold to be held in detention are being incarcerated anyway by JPD. Beginning in March 2019, the SF Chronicle published a series of reports documenting the dramatic drop in youth violence and juvenile incarceration, along with the skyrocketing costs of detention in the City. The SF Board of Supervisors overwhelming passed a motion to close the juvenile hall by December 2021.

The good news is that San Francisco has experienced an extraordinary reduction in juvenile crime and arrests and in corresponding juvenile detention rates. There are fewer youth in San Francisco’s juvenile hall today than there have been in more than 30 years. But the City and County still operate a large juvenile facility with hundreds of staff that costs taxpayers nearly $300,000 per year for each youth detained according to the SF Chronicle series.

The SF juvenile justice system must continue to significantly reduce the number of youth in the system; thoroughly improve the conditions and services provided and improve the outcomes of the small number of youth who remain in the system; and use the hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from a massive reduction to reinvest in the youth, their families, and the communities where they live.

New York City, with 8.5 million residents, only has 100 youth under the age of 18 in detention. If SF had a comparable youth detention rate, there would only be 11 youth in our juvenile hall. We can do better.

For youth who have not been arrested for a serious or violent offense and who are not determined to be of high risk to the public safety, the default decision should be to refer the youth to support from community based organizations (CBOs) and not to detention or further adjudication. Youth diverted from, and those supervised by, the system should be connected to meaningful and lasting relationships in their communities.

The City and County has invested significant resources into community-based services for justice involved youth, including an annual $10 million investment from the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF). These services need to be better coordinated to ensure youth are receiving appropriate support.

Incarcerating youth has very harmful effects: the experience is traumatic, and youth become much more likely to drop out of school and to become involved in the adult criminal justice system (Aizer & Doyle, 2015; Gatti, Tremblay and Vitar, 2009; McCarthy, Schiraldi, and Shark, 2016). Therefore, as few youth as possible should ever be incarcerated, even for brief periods. 

Understanding the harmful effects of detention, SF should use every possible vehicle to divert youth from being detained. When police arrest youth on suspicion of violating the law, the police department should have an array of diversion programs and practices to ensure that only youth who are legitimate risks to public safety are taken into custody. Police can counsel and release youth suspected of lower level and first time offenses; can refer youth who need more intervention to youth courts, restorative justice, or mentoring programs; and can even give citations to those youth they determine may need formal processing, requiring that those youth show up in court without bringing them to a detention center.

Alternatives to detention are far less costly, significantly less harmful, and much more effective than incarcerating youth. If detention is used at all, its use should be rare and brief. When detention is used, the youth facility should be humane, free from abuse, and heavily focused on education, and for those youth who need it: treatment and rehabilitation programs should be provided. Detention facilities must provide high quality education and should open their doors to saturate the facility with volunteers and community service programs.

Post-adjudication (i.e. after a youth is convicted), when youth are placed under the supervision of SF JPD by the courts, the supervision period should be brief. Long periods of supervision over many years are ineffective, inefficient, and detrimental. Research shows that longer lengths of probation result in unnecessary and harmful technical probation violations and incarceration when teens inevitably break the rules (National Juvenile Justice Network, 2016; W. Haywood Burns Institute, 2016). And keeping youth on probation for long periods contributes to higher caseloads, which tax POs and distract them from giving appropriate attention to higher risk youth.

Plan for Reform of the San Francisco Juvenile Justice System:

I stand with the SF Board of Supervisors and call for the closure of the juvenile detention center by December 2021.

In order to help achieve the safe, fair and effective closure of the Youth Guidance Center (San Francisco’s euphemistically named detention facility), as District Attorney I will either enact or advocate for the following systemic reforms:

  •     Diversion for non-serious, non-violent offenses. All youth arrested or given a notice to appear for non-serious, non-violent offenses should be processed through the Huckleberry Community Assessment and Referral Center (CARC) or other diversion program.  I will instruct my Assistant District Attorneys to divert from prosecution and place into community services, all youth processed for misdemeanors and low-level felonies.
  •     Greater access to community services. The CARC and all diversion programs should have access to the array of community-based services funded by DCYF, the Department of Public Health, or other City and County funded programs. The SFJPO should identify the neighborhoods where large numbers of youth on probation live, and in partnership with those communities, establish community service offices that are welcoming and supportive environments that may include co-location with other government agencies and community-based organizations. I will require my Assistant District Attorneys to regularly work out of these offices in addition to our central office so they can learn about the communities the youth come from first hand.
  •     New  Detention Home for serious and violent offenses. Youth charged with serious and violent offenses, which make up a very small percentage of all arrests, will be processed through the JPD. According to the California Department of Justice, in 2018 in San Francisco, there were 39 juvenile arrests for violent offenses and none for sex offenses. I will advocate for the City to open two 8-bed temporary detention homes for youth charged with a serious or violent offense who are determined to be high risk. 
  •     Capping probation. Research has proven that long probation terms are ineffective and wasteful. For youth placed on probation by the court, the San Francisco DA will request that the length of probation terms be capped at 10 months.