This week, I sat around a table with youth advocates, criminal justice reformers, union leaders, community members, and city officials for a discussion of what it will take to fundamentally end the incarceration of children as we know it in San Francisco. By way of introduction, each person shared what they hoped would happen for young people as a result of this work. The responses came from the heart. “I want people to believe in themselves.” “I want to reimagine what young people deserve.” “I want a plan for kids to be safe.” “I want to establish San Francisco as a model county that shows we can take care of our kids with our community partners.”

With new leadership in California and in San Francisco, we are at a remarkable turning point — years of organizing by community groups and youth advocates have inspired our leaders to embark on an ambitious plan to reimagine the juvenile justice system: Governor Gavin Newsom has pledged that California will end child incarceration and Mayor London Breed is convening a Juvenile Justice Reform Blue Ribbon Panel. Thanks to the visionary leadership of local organizations such as Young Women’s Freedom Center and the call to action by Supervisors Shamann Walton, Matt Haney, and Hillary Ronen, we have advanced to the forefront a conversation to transform the San Francisco juvenile justice system from one of youth detention to one of maximum benefit.

Individual fortitude, ambition, or sheer luck isn’t enough for young people to triumph over decades of institutionalized racism, intergenerational poverty, and systemic injustice. We need to stop hoping that children will somehow beat the odds — instead we need to change the odds.

As a Police Commissioner, Suzy worked with community advocates. Photo taken by Sonner Kehrt, a former student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism

As local efforts begin to enact meaningful change, here are seven steps I will take if elected as the next San Francisco District Attorney:

  • Create a policy to address cases involving exploitation of children to ensure that these children are recognized and treated as survivors (not offenders), provided robust support services, and protected from further harm.
  • Create more pre-filing and pre-court diversion pathways for youth to prevent or minimize contact with the juvenile justice system. Such pathways should include approaches such as restorative justice for youth, peer courts, and community courts.
  • Use the power and discretion of the District Attorney’s Office to ensure that children are treated as children, including establishing presumptions against prosecuting children as adults or incarcerating children.
  • Work with juvenile court officials to reimagine sentencing recommendations for children based on the presumption that children should not be incarcerated.
  • Establish a policy against prosecuting children for status offenses, such as habitual truancy, running away, or curfew violations.
  • Through Community Safety Initiatives, combine accountability with opportunity for self actualization: recruit youth and provide them with vocational training, job placement, and the dignity that comes with gainful employment.
  • Reduce the stigma of justice-involved youth by sealing records of juvenile charges, detention, and probation from public view without a court order.

San Francisco still spends more than $13 million to incarcerate children each year — a shocking $300,000 per child. Imagine what we could do if we invested those dollars to create a trauma-informed youth development system supported by a seamless web of rehabilitation, tools for preventing further traumatization, education, and health services. We need to explore:

  • Providing a mental health clinician to work with every child victim and offender. When access to services is separated from prosecution we ensure that the health and well-being of every child comes first.
  • Moving Juvenile Probation into the auspices of the Department of Public Health. Aligned with Governor Newsom’s proposal, this structural change would root juvenile justice practices in deep expertise and strengthen a commitment to rehabilitation, health, and resilience instead of punishment.
  • Enhancing cooperation between schools and social service systems, promoting access to education for foster youth, and ensuring the safe placement of foster youth on probation.

Suzy and community members at the Center for Youth Wellness.

Ending the incarceration of children requires us to redefine our understanding of “victim” and “offender.” Many young offenders were victims of, or witnesses to crime long before they became involved with the justice system. Often, that untreated victimization is what led to their involvement in crime in the first place.

In San Francisco, we have the Center for Youth Wellness. I partnered with California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke Harris to lead this organization that has become a model for integrating primary and behavioral health care to address the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences on the long term health of young people. I believe that San Francisco can continue to inspire California to become the first state in the country to deliver safer communities not by locking children up but by lifting them up. Change of this magnitude will require something from all of us — making room to center the voices of youth and survivors through every stage of this re-imagination process and prioritizing the safety of our community by moving from a place of punitive blame to rehabilitation, healing and building individual agency. Like many of the leaders around that table, I am certain that we can end the incarceration of children as we know it in San Francisco. But that just isn’t enough. No parent’s dream for their children is merely that they aren’t behind bars. Our collective dreams for all of our children have to be much bigger than that. Every child deserves the opportunity to thrive and excel and we owe them no less..