Skip to main content

New ideas needed to replace San Francisco’s Log Cabin Ranch for troubled youth

This piece originally appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle.

The recent closing of San Francisco’s Log Cabin Ranch, a residential facility for boys, is an important opportunity for the city to rethink its juvenile justice system.

Located in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the ranch had been in operation for more than 70 years. Despite the city’s many efforts to revitalize the site, it was a costly, obsolete approach to juvenile justice. Its closure, however, isn’t necessarily good news. The ranch was considered to be the last option for young people who committed serious offenses before being placed in a state penal institution. Now, faced with the possibility of time in a facility that is even farther from their families and communities, young people may encounter even worse outcomes. Just how the city will serve this group of young people is unclear — but it doesn’t have to be.

San Francisco has the creativity and authority to reject an ineffective model of youth incarceration for one that is centered around equity, community and support.

Most youth prisons in California today are run by counties. Senate Bill 81, the Juvenile Justice Realignment measure signed into law in 2007, limited who could be committed to state youth correctional institutions and provided additional funding to county probation systems. That legislation should have led to comprehensive reform. While the measure resulted in a decline in institutional commitments at the state level, it essentially created 58 mini-juvenile justice systems, each with different standards for what justice means for young people.

The cost to our communities, especially communities of color, is far greater than dollars. Racial and ethnic disparities in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system are stark. In 2016, African American youth comprised only 6 percent of the city’s population, but an alarming 63 percent of detentions. Youth of color made up almost 95 percent of detentions in San Francisco that year, 80 percent of the children in California’s youth prisons, and close to 70 percent nationwide.

Youth incarceration — whether on a “ranch,” in a youth prison or in a different type of confinement facility — is an antiquated approach that, as research shows, is detrimental to youth and a threat to public safety. According to a 2009 Justice Policy Institute report, youth who spend time in detention facilities have higher recidivism rates, suffer from more mental illness and a higher risk of suicide, and are less likely to succeed at education and employment at the same level as youth who were never incarcerated. Other studies show that incarceration exacerbates the negative consequences of childhood trauma, such as sexual abuse, community violence, neglect and maltreatment, experienced by more than 90 percent of detained youth.

The closure of Log Cabin Ranch exemplifies the fact that systems don’t reform themselves. At the Zellerbach Family Foundation, we understand that comprehensive change does not come from one foundation, one community provider or one public agency. Real reform requires authentic participation and input from all stakeholders, including advocates, the community, and the young people and families our juvenile justice system is supposed to serve.

The good news is that San Francisco has made progress. Juvenile hall bookings have declined almost every year since 2006, and youth are no longer held for nonviolent offenses. San Francisco also has a rich history of investing in and partnering with the community. Today, the city allocates more than $10 million to community-based programs that serve justice-system-involved youth.

San Francisco should build on this legacy by working with all stakeholders to reimagine and reconstruct its youth justice system. The city’s consolidated city-county government, strong community partners and system stakeholders who are committed to reform, such as the police chief, district attorney and public defender, all create an optimal environment for change. That, coupled with a newly elected mayor who has demonstrated her own commitment to reform, means that San Francisco is primed to dig deeper and be bolder.

Log Cabin Ranch was not the best we can do. Its closure should open the doors to a new era of youth justice and a commitment to ensure that every child in San Francisco has an opportunity to succeed.

This piece originally appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle.



Posted in JPI in the News

JPI's work

Through a combination of groundbreaking research, communications strategies and technical assistance, we inform advocates, policymakers and the media about fair and effective approaches to justice and community well-being.

Learn more »


We envision a society with safe, equitable and healthy communities; just and effective solutions to social problems; and the use of incarceration only as a last resort. Please help us end the #IncarcerationGeneration with a generous contribution.

Contribute »

Sign up for our newsletter