New Report Examines the Criminalization of Women, Girls, Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color in San Francisco

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE | February 19, 2019

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Bilen Mesfin, 510-681-5978
Layla, 310-804-3107

San Francisco, CA — The Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC) announced today the release of a new report that shows the dire impact of criminalization on women, girls, and transgender and gender non-conforming people of color, from housing instability to economic hardship and the intergenerational trauma of mass incarceration. The report is the first publication of the YWFC’s new Freedom Research Institute, which is led by directly impacted people, and paints a nuanced and comprehensive picture of how communities in San Francisco have been criminalized as a result of the rise of mass incarceration over the past 50 years.

“This report gives us a deeper understanding of how we have been marginalized and harmed by systems intended to protect us, and will expand our collective understanding for our vision to radically transform systems of oppression,” said Jessica Nowlan, executive director of the YWFC. “The research summarized here will better equip us to drive a larger movement towards freedom and liberation for us all.”

“A Radical Model for Decriminalization” previews findings from 100 interviews conducted from 2017-2018 with people in the juvenile system, adult criminal justice system and/or foster care in San Francisco, criminal justice researchers, and practitioners. The findings provide a glimpse of the complex web of services, government programs, and barriers that criminalize and cause economic, emotional, and spiritual harm, tearing families and communities apart and perpetuating cycles of poverty, violence, and incarceration. Key findings include:

  • Of 100 interview participants ages 18 to 29, 97% identified as people of color, and 35% identified as LGBTQ.
  • Participants face extreme housing instability. Interviewees ages 13 to 17 had an average of 20.8 moves in their lifetime; those aged 18 to 21 experienced an average of 16.3 moves.
  • The intergenerational impact of systems impact is severe: during all 100 of the participants’ childhoods, 53% of mothers and 68% percent of fathers were incarcerated. For Black families, the numbers are even more severe: 71% of Black mothers and 80% of Black fathers had to manage parenting through different periods of incarceration. 
  • 73% of all participants who were foster youth were involved in the justice system and clearly articulated that they thought that their involvement in the justice system was a result of being in foster care. Juvenile justice involvement is a robust predictor of adult justice involvement, in this study 52% of those participants involved in the juvenile justice system were also involved in the adult system.
  • Participants demonstrated a desire to further their education to secure more gainful employment, and 57% of people had attended some community college yet only one person in the study graduated from a four-year university. 7% of people graduated with an AA from a community college.
  • In addition to supplementing income through government subsidies, 63% of participants found the need to work in the underground street economy.

Though San Francisco’s juvenile justice system has seen less overall improvement at every point of the system, there remain significant racial and ethnic disparities in the youth who are referred, incarcerated, and otherwise monitored by the courts. San Francisco has the lowest youth population in the country but the Black, Latinx, and other communities of color that are left are facing increasing economic and political marginalization.

The report includes initial policy recommendations that address deep-rooted biases that cause criminalization for a general audience as well as specific recommendations for the city of San Francisco. The recommendations for San Francisco focus on two core areas of reform to meet the community’s immediate and basic needs: affordable housing and economic opportunities. These recommendations include:

  • Establish community engagement strategies at county and state levels so that those most impacted have a seat at decision making tables and commit to hiring staff that reflects the communities that have been most impacted by system-involvement.
  • Decrease reliance on government agencies as service providers and move towards funding for direct services, support, alternatives to incarceration, reentry and family reunification through community-based programming.
  • Increase funding for rapid housing for homeless women, girls and transgender and gender non-conforming people and create more supportive housing programs that fall outside the scope of drug rehabilitation or state-sponsored group homes, are culturally relevant and prioritize building a safe environment for women, girls, and transgender and gender non-conforming people.
  • Invest in high-quality skill-building programs led by a local community organization that emphasize the development of social and emotional skills for a healthier adult life.
  • Increase pathways and programming that lead to jobs that pay a living wage comparable to the cost of living in San Francisco. 

The research team will work directly with San Francisco city agencies to share these recommendations to reform policy for those entangled in the justice and foster care systems.

“Young women and girls like me are the most qualified to lead research on system involvement,” said Jocelyn Mati, research organizer with the YWFC. “We are embedded in the justice and foster care systems and hold a lived understanding of the questions. This isn’t just paper for us, it’s life. We didn’t collect these stories to turn them into clickbait, we gathered this wisdom to reform the system from within.”

“This research has the power to change the narratives that the systems create about us,” said Lucero Herrera, lead research organizer with the YWFC. “Once marginalized women and girls start to understand the structural problems they face, they can contextualize their story. We need to reform the system to help support our rehabilitation and healing, not continue to punish us.”

The Young Women’s Freedom Center has operated under the framework that the women, girls, and transgender and gender-nonconforming people who are most impacted by injustice have the answers and insights needed to radically transform structures of oppression that perpetuate cycles of deep poverty, violence, and incarceration. This report and research project was made possible by the general operating support of the Meadow Fund, Novo Foundation and the Positive Youth Justice Initiative.

The first of a series of reports that the YWFC’s Research Institute will release over the next 24 months, this research was informed by the work of the YWFC research team, including three youth and one adult researcher.

The report is available for download here.

About Young Women’s Freedom Center

The mission of the Young Women’s Freedom Center, originally called Young Women’s Development Center, is to empower and inspire young women who have been involved with the juvenile justice system and/or the street economy to create positive change in their lives and communities. Since 1993, the organization has begun their transformative work by meeting young women where they are: in juvenile halls, jails, and on the streets and linking youth development and youth organizing strategies with the mission to provide gender-specific, peer-based opportunities for high-risk, low- and no-income young women. For more information visit