Report Shows Flaw in Youth Justice Reform

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although juvenile crime and arrests are down in San Francisco, five years worth of justice reforms have failed to reduce the number of youths detained at the city's juvenile hall, according to a report to be released today.

Instead, the report, commissioned by a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, found that authorities have continued to incarcerate hundreds of juveniles--especially girls and minorities--by essentially lowering the bar for who should be booked.

The study found that 85% of youths arrested for crimes in 1999 were booked at San Francisco's juvenile hall rather than being released to their parents without charges or pending further investigation.

Fifteen years earlier, the report says, 37% of the youths were booked.

"I have never seen numbers like this," said Dan Macallair, co-author of the report and vice president of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, a nonprofit public policy organization based in San Francisco.

"This report says that practically every kid arrested in San Francisco is being booked," Macallair said. "And what we found is that even though crime is down and the youth population is down, they continue to fill up juvenile hall because [authorities] are detaining kids who don't need to be there, kids who 10 years ago would never have been detained."

While they have not yet seen the new study, San Francisco probation officials who oversee the 135-bed Youth Guidance Center disputed the notion that they unnecessarily detain youths suspected of crimes.

To the contrary, they noted that the average daily population of their juvenile hall decreased by 3% between 1989 and 1999 while, statewide, the figure rose 20% for the total population of juvenile halls.

"I am an African American administrator who has spent 30 years in this business trying to deinstitutionalize kids and expand community programs," said Jesse E. Williams Jr., San Francisco's chief probation officer. "So the notion that I would purposely lock up youth of color for any reason other than legitimate public safety is ludicrous."

But the study's Macallair said the probation department's statistics are misleading since far more youths were arrested in 1989 than in 1999--6,079 versus 3,405.

There is no doubt, he said, that San Francisco's juvenile hall is filled daily with many youths who do not need to be there. That conclusion is particularly disturbing, he said, because San Francisco officials five years ago launched a sweeping effort to reform their juvenile justice system with some $20 million in federal and state funds.

"Despite the city's investment in juvenile justice reform over the past five years, there is no evidence of system change," the study says. "Instead, it appears that new services and programs were simply marginalized."

For example, the study found that in 1984, 6,247 youths were arrested in San Francisco and 2,334 were booked. Yet in 1999, there were only 3,405 arrests but 2,913 youths booked into detention. Most remain in custody anywhere from a few hours to a few days.

In addition, the study found, authorities were not simply booking the most serious juvenile offenders, since felony arrests fell even as the juvenile hall caseload remained almost constant. Likewise, the study says, probation department figures show steep declines in the number of youths prosecuted as adults and the number of juveniles sent to the California Youth Authority.

A breakdown of the youths booked at juvenile hall also found some other disturbing patterns, according to the report.

While bookings among white males declined sharply over the years and declined slightly for African American males, an increase was reported in the number of Latino and Asian males detained at juvenile hall. The most dramatic increase in bookings occurred among African American girls.

"In summary, this analysis shows that the situation for youths in the San Francisco juvenile justice system has deteriorated over the past five years as more children are subject to significantly higher degrees of confinement than before the reforms began," said the report.

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Juvenile Detention

A new study has found that the number of youths detained at San Francisco's juvenile hall has remained constant over 15 years even though the number of youths arrested has dropped dramatically.

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Source: Juvenile Probation Dept., City and County of San Francisco, Criminal Justice Statistics Center, California Criminal Justice Profile-San Francisco

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