‘There’s no reason to have children a tiny cell with a concrete slab and a toilet bowl. There’s no reason at all that it has to be like that.’


Mayor London Breed on Monday declined to sign into law a historic piece of legislation brought forth by the Board of Supervisors that would close Juvenile Hall by 2021. Her decision to neither sign nor veto the bill means it will go into effect anyway, without her signature — it will just take an extra month, according to a representative from the city clerk’s office. 

“She was pretty clear all along that she did not support that legislation,” said Jeff Cretan, a spokesman for the mayor. He explained that Breed wanted to see a clear plan in place for moving forward, and had implemented her own panel in April that would look into more moderate ways to reform the criminal justice system in California than swiftly abolishing an institution. 

But despite her reticence, an end to the jailing of children in San Francisco really will happen, in less than three years. And it’s a pretty big deal. 

“It’s historic that this legislation passed,” said Carolyn Goossen, a legislative aide for Supervisor Hillary Ronen, one of the authors of the bill, along with Supervisors Matt Haney and Shamann Walton.  “And now we were able to get through the budget the funding to make sure the working group runs smoothly and funded. So I feel very hopeful and excited and ready to delve into the next phase of the work.” 

A working group made up of community leaders and city officials will be appointed by September. Mission Local chatted with Goossen — who has been working behind the scenes toward this end for years — to find out what’s next for the bill, and what it ultimately takes to create a rehabilitation-based alternative to incarcerating children.

Mission Local: What are the next steps?

Carolyn Goossen: Our first job will be getting the working group off the ground. We’ve already gotten money in the budget for it! The next step will then be to appoint the members of the 15-member working group. The majority of those seats are community-based, and for any seat that’s not a city department, they go through an appointment process that the Rules Committee will run. We will put it out to the community soon that we’re looking for people to apply for the working group. They’ll have a month to apply, and then we’ll start having people come interview. And those are public televised committee meetings at the Rules Committee. Then we’ll select the working group members. So I think probably that will likely be middle to end of September.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen, an author of the Juvenile Hall Closure bill.

ML: Can you tell us more about what the working group will be working on? What does it take to create an alternative to incarceration?

CG: There’s no reason to have children a tiny cell with a concrete slab and a toilet bowl. There’s no reason at all that it has to be like that. It could be a small, secured house with security and cameras, but that looks more like a small house. There are many options, but we’re really going to bring into the working group people with real expertise who’ve been looking at this issue locally and across the country.

ML: What are some of the challenges that you already foresee coming up during the working group?

CG: I think it is going to be a lot of work, of course. You want to do this stuff right. That’s why we wanted to give ourselves two and a half years to make sure this can be done really thoughtfully. And you know, a lot of people in the community have been waiting a long time to be a part of this process. It’s not about having abstract discussions, it’s about moving with urgency towards a clear goal. 

ML: How did you decide that this is so important to the community and where did the idea come from?

CG: I mean, this is something that the community has been talking about for decades. What we saw right now was an opportunity. We have not only this longtime community organizing but we have a very powerful base: Young Women’s Freedom Center made it one of their goals is to stop the imprisonment of girls and gender nonconforming people, and close the juvenile halls, youth prisons and adult prisons. So that’s their explicit mission, and they’ve been working on that with formerly incarcerated young people and adults. 

Then the Chronicle did this remarkable investigative story really exposing the incredible decline in youth crime all over the state; really showing how, you know, the huge amounts of money that is spent. So, you know, the fact that it’s $300,000 per youth that we spend on incarceration. This is a huge issue, and a waste of money that’s happening statewide. At the same time, we’ve had all this research done in the past decade and in recent years on the fact that it does not help young people. There is clear research that detention and incarceration of young people does not help them rehabilitate. In fact, it does the opposite.

Chart by Jill Tucker and Joaquin Palomino, for the San Francisco Chronicle.

ML: Some of the pushback to this legislation was about fear that youth would just be shipped to other districts instead, and that three years isn’t enough time to put a plan into place. What is your response?

CG: I think it’s just misinformation. And I do think there’s a fear that in just one day we’re going to close the doors and then where is everyone going to go? But more than half the youth in juvenile hall are there awaiting placement, so they don’t have to be there anymore. The court has already said that there’s no reason to detain them. They’re just waiting to go somewhere else, or are there on a probation violation. But there’s a small percentage of youth that we do have to, by law, detain, who have serious charges, and who are awaiting trial. And for those youth we want to be very clear that we are creating this alternative place for them to be that will be safe and secure.

What we’re trying to do is make sure young people get to be here locally, and that we create a culture where instead of putting all this money into an inhumane, ineffective jail, let’s shift it into the programs and services that actually help young people.

It’s about reinvesting our dollars into programs that will actually help these young people and their families. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.