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Minor Reform: Kids Are Staying Out of Trouble, Even if S.F. Cops Aren’t 

Wednesday, Apr 8 2015
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San Francisco's law enforcement agencies are under intense scrutiny for mishaps of Homeric proportions. The Sheriff's Department is alleged to have turned the county jail into a gladiator-style fight club, with deputies training and betting on brawling inmates. The Police Department can't seem to get away from scandal: Since December, its credibility has unraveled as the FBI Anna Latino investigated racist and homophobic text messages exchanged among 13 cops. Just in the last month, two officers were sentenced to federal prison on corruption charges and the DNA lab was revealed to have allegedly blundered more than 1,000 criminal cases.

Aside from last month's request by Juvenile Hall counselors to carry pepper spray, to which the department head quickly said "no," the San Francisco law enforcement's youth counterpart has managed to keep its name out of the nonstop media clusterfuck.

In fact, the Juvenile Probation Department appears to be shaping up to be a reputable operation.

Juvenile Hall is growing emptier compared to seven years ago. In 2008, the department detained 1,939 youth -- and every year since then, the number of kids booked into jail has dropped. There were 1,585 booked in 2009; 1,353 in 2010; 1,146 in 2011; 938 in 2012; 856 in 2013; and 746 last year, according to jail records.

Perhaps this dramatic decline in youth incarceration rates is linked to families fleeing San Francisco. During the same time period, fifth-to-12th-grade students enrolled in San Francisco Unified School District schools dropped by about 4,000. (The ages of those kids, 11 to 18 years olds, correlate with those in Juvenile Hall.)

While Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance couldn't point to one defining factor that caused the declining Juvenile Hall population, he noted that the welcome shift might be due to new policy changes and shifting demographics.

"A lot of our young people who would otherwise be consumers of criminal justice resources are moving to other parts of the Bay Area," Nance said.

Black and Latino youths make up a large majority of the youths booked into Juvenile Hall, department data shows. Of the 379 youths detained for criminal offenses last year, 224 of them were African-American and 90 were Hispanic.

Maria Su, executive director for the Department of Children, Youth and their Families, acknowledged that "family flight" from San Francisco is a trend she's observed in recent years, but believes the drop in youth incarceration has more to do with new partnerships among law enforcement, nonprofits, and city departments.

"The system as a whole is contributing to [the decrease]," she said. "We are now working much better together."

Alongside truancy prevention work, her department is a part of the the Community Assessment and Referral Center which has become a landing place for kids arrested for noncriminal offenses. There, they get life-counseling and life-building skills meant to steer them away from trouble.

"We can't arrest our way out of the situation," Su said.

That applies to local cops, too.

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