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Mayor Lee and SF Juvenile Probation Department Open New ‘Merit Center’ Inside Juvenile Hall

Onsite recreation center to provide youth with more access to enriching activities to emphasize positive reinforcement; a shift from confinement in rehabilitation process.

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee and Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Allen Nance today cut the ribbon on a new Merit Center at Juvenile Hall. This new onsite recreation center represents a shift to a new model for detained youth that emphasizes positive reinforcement and behavior management. The new center was made possible due to a significant reduction in average daily population from a high of 123 in April 2008, to the current population of 45 youth, more than a 60% reduction.

“For the past decade, San Francisco has implemented new ideas and approaches to reduce the number of youth at Juvenile Hall, and those strategies have produced incredible results that today allow us to launch the next phase of our juvenile justice efforts with the opening of this new Merit Center,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee. “I applaud Chief Nance and his team for thinking outside the box and finding ways to move away from confinement and work with youth to change their behavior so they don’t reoffend.”

“With the census at Juvenile Hall reduced to all-time lows, we want to repurpose our facilities to address the root causes that bring youth into the juvenile justice system,” said Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Allen Nance. “If we can provide youth with the motivation and support to change their behavior and teach them the skills to succeed in school, at home, and in the workplace, we won’t see them reenter the system and we will reduce recidivism even further.”

Even with significant reductions in the average daily population at Juvenile Hall, there is an ever increasing need to focus on key behavioral health, social, recreational, and vocational skills. Far too often, the acuity of need is great for those youths who are detained. Trauma, poverty, mental health challenges, and community violence are some of the many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that affect detained youths. The Merit Center hopes to address these issues by working with youth to modify behavior, emphasize motivation and merit and build capacity for onsite recreational opportunities, so that skills and competencies can be developed to better prepare youth to manage their own behavior in ways that lead to positive interactions with peers and adults.

Youth will attain Merit Status by actively participating in unit programs, displaying positive and supportive behavior with peers and staff, attendance and full participation in the hall’s school program and completion of homework assignments. As a reward for their positive behavior, the department will offer enriching activities that stimulate typical teenage interests and experiences, such as foosball, ping pong, video games, group activities, movie nights, and literary programs. The department will also allow youth more autonomy and decision-making within a structured framework, while providing an alternative to the more sterile, and mundane experience within a typical institutional setting.

The Merit Center Project is designed to work in conjunction with the Juvenile Justice Center’s (JJC) Behavior Management Policy and the adjustments are further aligned with the provisions of SB 1143, Room Confinement (Leno), the bill recently signed into law by Governor Brown.

The Merit Center is the first of several building blocks that the department hopes will change the way detention facilities are perceived and utilized.  The lessons learned from this pilot project will be applied throughout the institution, with the goal being to create an environment that addresses each youth’s personal challenges and preparing them to succeed once they are released.

“The City and County of San Francisco is currently the pace car in terms of progressive juvenile justice policy and reform,” said Juvenile Probation Commission President Joe Arellano. “But even though the census numbers have been greatly reduced at Juvenile Hall, we aren’t standing pat and accepting the status quo. Our commission wants to start addressing the root causes still causing youth to enter the system, such as posttraumatic stress, income inequality and mental health. Launching the Merit Center is the first step in that process.”