30% of S.F. Juvenile Offenders Actually Adults

Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle, September 17, 2008

Nearly 30 percent of the felony offenders San Francisco juvenile justice officials have reported to federal immigration authorities since the city stopped shielding youths from deportation have turned out to be adults, authorities say.

The city’s Juvenile Probation Department has referred 58 offenders to federal authorities since Mayor Gavin Newsom announced July 2 that the city no longer would protect youths from deportation under San Francisco’s sanctuary law. The mayor took the step after The Chronicle revealed that the city was paying for flights home and $7,000-a-month group homes for underage, undocumented offenders, who as adults could face prison and automatic deportation.

Of those 58 offenders, authorities have concluded that 17—or 29.3 percent—were adults, based on immigration records and the statements of offenders themselves, federal immigration officials say. Most of the 58 were being held on drug-dealing charges.

“It confirms our early suspicion that adults were taking advantage of the sanctuary policy in order to evade detection, responsibility and prosecution for criminal behavior,” said Joseph Russoniello, the U.S. attorney for Northern California.

Russoniello said adult illegal immigrants convicted of felonies face almost certain deportation, but San Francisco’s previous policy of not reporting juveniles who had committed similar offenses to federal officials encouraged offenders to “game the system” and say they were underage.

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Federal immigration officials say most of the offenders they have determined to be adults either admitted they were over 18 or had previously been caught crossing the border and the birth dates they provided then confirmed they are adults now.

Feds want access to jail

[Tim Aitken, field office director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s detention operations in San Francisco] said federal officials should be allowed access to juvenile hall and adult jail so they can check inmates’ immigration status more easily.

Sheriff Michael Hennessey, however, has balked at providing more access in the adult jail. He said that no law requires his agency to allow federal officials to screen inmates, and that the city’s sanctuary ordinance requires San Francisco officials to have a legal basis for helping the federal government track down illegal immigrants.

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For all the back-and-forth over the issue, Aitken said, the city officials’ revised policy of referring juvenile offenders is still an improvement over their former refusal to do so.

In July, City Attorney Dennis Herrera reiterated a 1994 opinion that nothing in the sanctuary city law provided protection for juveniles who commit felonies.

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Juvenile probation officials have said they are often forced to trust offenders when they say they are underage. They say that while courts can order dental examinations in an attempt to determine an offender’s age, the findings are inexact.

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