A document detailing how San Mateo County intends to locally detain at-risk youth was approved by the Board of Supervisors amid dissent from community members familiar with the juvenile justice system, a fellow supervisor and a state senator.

“I’m actually surprised by the criticism of the plan because I think the plan is pretty comprehensive,” Supervisor Don Horsley said during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting.

In a 4-1 vote, supervisors accepted the San Mateo County Juvenile Justice Realignment Plan, a 24-page document created by a subcommittee of the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council. The document highlights an LGBTQ friendly approach to housing youth, mental health services through the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, education opportunities with the Office of Education and re-entry services in partnerships with community based organizations.

Youth would stay in one of the county’s two facilities, a 30-bed girls’ facility called Camp Kemp and a Juvenile Hall Youth Services Center with capacity for 160 occupants.

Counties were required to develop the plan following the signing of Senate Bill 823 in 2020, which began phasing out the state’s Division of Juvenile Justice and requires children to remain in their home counties to ensure close proximity to families.

But some who attended Tuesday’s meeting noted that the county’s plan suggests a willingness to house children from outside San Mateo County specifically at Camp Kemp.

Currently, the county has an agreement with the Sonoma County Probation Department to receive girls into the program. An interest in entering into a joint powers agreement with nine Bay Area counties is also detailed in the document, “with an emphasis on those adjacent to us to house their youth and provide them with services and programs.”

Opposition to proposal

State Sen. Josh Becker, D-San Mateo, requested supervisors table the discussion and allow for modifications to the plan.

“San Mateo County Probation has the opportunity to develop a juvenile justice plan that will support young people in new and innovative ways that will integrate restorative justice and move away from detention and detainment that will include marginalized voices,” Becker said.

Echoing Becker, Paul Bocanegra, a Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Commissioner in the county, and a formerly incarcerated youth implored supervisors to not approve the realignment plan.

Bocanegra, also the co-founder of ReEvolution Group, an organization focused on supporting reintegration of recently incarcerated people, said the plan contradicts SB 823 requirement to retain children locally.

“The closure of [Division of Juvenile Justice] was meant to refer their youth back to their natural communities,” Bocanegra said. “It was not meant to begin opening the caged doors to empty cells across the Bay Area and the importing and exporting of children from county to county.”

Chief Probation Officer John Keene, who chaired the subcommittee that drafted the document, assured the council that the program would not seek to bring in youths from other nearby counties who would otherwise be entered into the Division of Juvenile Justice.

He did note that the department would be willing to open programming at Camp Kemp to youths from outside San Mateo County. Girls from outside the county would stay overnight at the camp, one of the most serious placements in the county, while attending school and receiving services and re-entry programming.

Keene described the camp as a relaxing dorm setting for young girls and Supervisor Carole Groom called it “an extremely humane, homelike facility.”

“Our goal really is to provide services to help change the lives of these young women,” Keene said. “We believe that fundamentally … when you support young women in a gender-specific program, you have the ability to change intergenerational aspects of a family’s life and this program is geared to support that.”

‘It’s my hope that one day we don’t need juvenile hall’

The agency would also seek to expand its Gaining Independence and Reclaiming Lives Successfully program. The existing program uses gender-responsive principles, a belief that girls commit crimes for different reasons than boys, and restorative justice philosophy which blends accountability and treatment.

The program would be expanded if grant funding is received and neighboring jurisdictions showed interest in participating, though Keene noted the department has no interest in receiving youths from further outside the region.

“It’s not our intention to go out and farm for young people,” Keene said. “We’re not walking out saying ‘send us your kids.’ We’re simply saying ‘we have a good program of which we can expand upon to provide more services to enhance the school based services we have.’”

David Canepa, Board of Supervisors president and the only member to vote against the realignment plan, said he felt the Gov. Gavin Newsom’s intention in signing the bill was to ensure children remain close to their families.

He also suggested the county’s look to expand services outside of its large facilities, currently only housing 21 youths. Additionally, Horsley said he’d like to see “softening” of juvenile hall, which he said resemble other standard facilities.

“I really think that we may have to reimagine, revisit how juvenile hall is now,” Canepa said. “It’s my hope that one day we don’t need juvenile hall and that people can really work towards getting the help they need instead of being put in cages.”

Approval of the realignment plan now allows the county to qualify for Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grants, funded under SB 823. Keene said grant funds would help the department achieve recommendations made by supervisors.

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(1) comment

John Pimentel

I think Canepa and Bocanegra are on the right track. Let’s gets these kids into a situation where they can find caring adults who can help change their trajectories to avoid graduating from juvenile hall to prison. Rather, let’s support them with finishing high school, getting through free community college, and learning how to be young adults capable of contributing positively to society for 40 or 50 years.

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