New Report Highlights How Young People are Impacted by Criminalization, Incarceration, and Surveillance in San Francisco

Young Women’s Freedom Center report centers expertise of system-impacted young people to transform youth justice

February 2, 2020

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Layla Crater,, 310-804-3107

San Francisco, CA — Young Women’s Freedom Center (YWFC) announced today the release of a new report that highlights how system-impacted youth navigate criminalization, incarceration, and surveillance as children growing up in San Francisco. 

“For nearly 30 years, Young Women’s Freedom Center has lifted up the voices and solutions of formerly incarcerated and system-impacted young people to end those harmful systems,” said Jessica Nowlan, Executive Director of YWFC. “Their expertise must be the center of our collective work to realize freedom and liberation for everyone. We can achieve radical change only if we listen to young people’s vision of a different future.”

On June 4, 2019, as a result of decades of advocacy by YWFC and its partners, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to permanently shut down San Francisco’s Juvenile Justice Center (JJC) by 2021, closing the nation’s first urban juvenile detention facility. COVID-19 disrupted plans well underway to shut down the facility; as community advocates grew more concerned about the safety of incarcerated people, Governor Newsom announced an executive order including a proposal to close the Division of Juvenile Justice. While the order appears to be a victory for juvenile justice activists, it has profound effects on the county level. Youth will be transferred back to their county, which could reverse local wins to shut down juvenile detention facilities by requiring those counties to house this small number of young people. 

Through their Eyes is the latest report from YWFC’s Freedom Research Institute and provides evidence to support the immediate and complete closure of JJC in San Francisco, and why communities must end the harmful practice of incarcerating youth in all communities across the country. The participatory, community-driven research illuminates the experiences of 51 cis and trans young women and girls, trans young men, and boys and gender expansive youth who experienced incarceration and probation in San Francisco. 

“The stories courageously shared in this report, by people detained and supervised by San Francisco’s juvenile delinquency system, provide compelling evidence for the immediate and permanent closure of juvenile detention facilities,” said Alezandra Zaragoza Melendrez, Freedom Research Institute President. “We hope that juvenile delinquency system administrators and other stakeholders will take the experiences shared in this report seriously and see it as a call to action to abolish systems of harm and envision communities that nurture all young people.”

The report is also an integral component of Freedom 2030. Launched in 2020, the 10-year campaign and legislative agenda was developed by over 300 cis and trans women and young women, trans men and young men, and gender-expansive youth and adults who have experienced the extreme harm caused by the punishment system in the U.S. The ultimate goal of Freedom 2030 is to end the criminalization and incarceration of poor young people and youth of color across California and the U.S.

YWFC convened a group of youth researchers, all of whom experienced incarceration at JJC, to analyze the qualitative data through a framework they created to represent the complex stories shared by interview participants. 

While the experiences shared in Through their Eyes are specific to San Francisco, they easily apply to other jurisdictions in California and across the U.S. Key insights include: 

  • Youth interviewed were pushed deeper into the juvenile delinquency system for reasons that are unjust and beyond their control such as survival crimes, foster care entanglements, and restrictions and probation requirements that impeded their goals. 
    • 67% of those interviewed worked in the underground street economy as minors to meet basic needs.
    • 39.1% didn’t understand their charges or the court system.
  • Many youth shared stories about how they were criminalized in schools and treated like “troubled youth” instead of children, and how school administrators were quick to involve the police instead of resolving incidents internally. 
    • 20% were charged with their first offense when staff at their school or foster care provider called the police to handle an internal incident.

The report also outlines recommendations from young people interviewed on transforming the juvenile justice system, including to enable youth to enact self-determined goals by reducing excessive monitoring and probation requirements and providing support to help young people achieve economic stability post-detention. 

“This is a call to listen to the wisdom of the young people who are navigating the failures of the institutions and systems intended to help us, but that instead have caused us tremendous harm,” said Jocelyn Mati, research organizer with the Freedom Research Institute. “If we center the experiences and the voices of young people, we can create spaces where youth are treated with the love and dignity we deserve.” 

Later in 2021, YWFC will publish an additional report detailing further recommendations for systems transformation as well as tools for communities looking to undertake systems transformation efforts and to create a new ecosystem that treats youth with humanity and dignity. 

Young Women’s Freedom Center will host an online event March 4, 2021 to highlight key themes that emerged in producing Through their Eyes and critical insights for transforming harmful systems that have caused these young people long-lasting trauma. Media interested in attending the virtual launch event on March 4, 2021 at 11:00 a.m. PT should email 


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