Moving from Punishment to Restoration
Over the past two decades, legislatures throughout the country, including California’s, have responded to the issue of juvenile crime by adopting laws instituting harsher treatment of juvenile offenders. Yet, there is a substantial body of evidence indicating that juveniles, in fact, lack adult capacities with respect to judgment and impulse control. At the same time, juveniles are more amenable to rehabilitative interventions than adults.
Under my leadership, the District Attorney’s Office’s juvenile justice efforts will be guided by a restorative justice model. Restorative justice can make San Francisco safer, and keep San Francisco’s children from becoming adult offenders. The focus of restorative justice is on repairing the harm done by an offender’s actions. It puts the victim’s needs and offender accountability to those needs at the center of a community-involved process to repair the harm. High-quality restorative justice programs have been shown to reduce recidivism, increase victim satisfaction, engage the community, and reduce costs.
Changing the Juvenile Justice Status Quo
While my District Attorney’s Office will be predicated on a restorative justice model, it cannot be the only solution. We have to change the focus and mindset of how we operate our juvenile justice system.
To do that, I will elevate the juvenile unit to a full Division within the District Attorney’s Office, headed by a Juvenile Division Chief deeply knowledgeable about all aspects of approaches to juvenile crime and offenders and committed to working closely with affected communities.
It is critical that this new Juvenile Division is staffed by Assistant District Attorneys with specialized knowledge and qualifications regarding juvenile justice. Thus, Assistant DAs recruited to work in the Juvenile Division will receive increased training in specific issues effecting juvenile crime.
Furthermore, the data show that transferring youth from the juvenile justice system into adult court does not make us safer. Youth who remain in the juvenile justice system have lower recidivism rates because there are much better rehabilitation opportunities in the juvenile system. As District Attorney, I will never “direct file” a youth into adult court. Instead, in the very rare instances where I feel a juvenile should be tried as an adult, I will bring the case to a hearing before a judge, who will hear evidence from all sides and decide what is appropriate.
Taking the Expert Approach
There are many other issues that we must focus on in overhauling our juvenile justice system – all in partnership with the community – including: the overrepresentation of youth of color; the unique needs of girls; health; foster care reform; schools; and recreation, after-school and employment opportunities. For a more in depth look at my step-by-step juvenile justice policy, I encourage you to click here.
The Safest Generation of San Francisco youth will be the first, and most important step, in making this the safest and fairest city in America. With the community’s help and guidance, this will be a top priority of my administration.
David Onek is the founding Executive Director of the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney. His plan, The Safest Generation, can be viewed by clicking here.