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    Closing Juvenile Hall Is an LGBTQ Issue

    By Peter Gallotta–

    Earlier this month, at a rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall, Supervisor Shamann Walton spoke a lot of truth. “Incarceration is harmful and completely ineffective,” he said. “I believe that any form of youth jail is detrimental to youth development and furthers trauma.” The issue is personal for Walton, who was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors last year to represent the Bayview, Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley and Potrero Hill neighborhoods. His first experience with incarceration came at the age of 15.

    “All I learned in the hall was how to survive life in prison. It felt designed for that purpose. I am who I am in spite of Juvenile Hall,” Walton has said. Now, along with Supervisors Hillary Ronen and Matt Haney, he is calling for San Francisco to close its Juvenile Hall by December 2021.

    Every year, San Francisco spends $13 million to incarcerate fewer than 50 young people. These are youth between the ages of 13 to 18 and at the beginning stages of their life, often trying to navigate the complexity of family, school and a city facing the most extreme disparities of income inequality in the country. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Young Women’s Freedom Center, the three main reasons youth find themselves at Juvenile Hall are from minor infractions from school or foster care or crimes of survival like shoplifting. More than 70% of these young people are serving time for a nonviolent offense.

    Supervisors Walton, Ronen and Haney see a real opportunity to change this overly punitive and institutionalized model. They have introduced legislation that would close the juvenile hall facility at 375 Woodside Avenue, which currently sits two-thirds empty. The City would then transition the majority of these young people into alternative programs to incarceration. For the few who may need to be in a secure facility due to state law, the legislation proposes creating a small rehabilitative, non-institutional center.

    It’s a bold, progressive and necessary move by all accounts. San Francisco political leaders talk a lot about criminal justice reform, yet have been slow to implement significant systemic changes. 850 Bryant, the City’s seismically unsafe and dilapidated jail, still remains open after multiple calls for its closure. In 2015, 53 percent of San Francisco’s jail population were black despite the fact that African Americans comprise less than 5 percent of the City’s population. These stark racial disparities also hold true for young people detained. In San Francisco, while about 5% of children are black, about 60% of the juvenile hall population is black.

    This is the reality of an unjust system. And while reform of the police state is necessary, it’s not enough. Thanks to the advocacy of formerly incarcerated young people who have called for alternatives to incarceration for years, we now have an opportunity to dismantle and rethink the system altogether. I believe the LGBTQ community must support this fight.

    LGBTQ youth, particularly LGBTQ youth of color, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. According to a report released by the Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, the percentage of LGBT and gender nonconforming youth in juvenile detention is double that of LGBTQ youth in the general population. An analysis of a national population-based survey found that LGBTQ youth were between 25% and 300% more likely than their non-LGBTQ peers to experience some sort of punitive action, ranging from being expelled from school, stopped by police, arrested or convicted as a juvenile or adult.

    The discrimination and stigma that LGBTQ youth face can lead to criminalization and increased interactions with law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Once within the system, LGBTQ youth often face bias, mistreatment and abuse in confinement facilities, especially due to their gender identity or expression. For transgender and gender non-conforming youth, jail placement decisions rarely take into account their gender identity or expression. Due to the lack of supportive services when leaving the system, many LGBTQ youth are forced into a cycle of poverty, homelessness and incarceration.

    Closing Juvenile Hall in San Francisco is an LGBTQ issue. It’s time to eliminate the use of youth prisons and instead invest the $13 million we spend every year on community-based solutions focused on the individual needs of youth and their families. Closing San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall would set a precedent and be an example that could have ripple effects for incarcerated youth throughout the state and the country.

    I urge LGBTQ leaders and community groups to stand with Supervisors’ Walton, Ronen and Haney; the youth advocates; and black and brown communities impacted by incarceration. Our criminal justice system is failing black and brown LGBTQ youth across the country. Enough is enough. Let’s show that there’s a different way.

    Peter Gallotta is a 30-something LGBT political activist holding on to the city that he loves thanks to rent control and two-for-one happy hour specials. He is a former President of the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and currently serves as an appointed member of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and an elected delegate to the California Democratic Party.