In a room packed with Alameda County’s most high profile politicians and community leaders, on Thursday night recently appointed Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad shared his visions for improving the juvenile justice system.
The standing-room-only event, entitled “Making Second Chances for Youth Count: A Conversation with David Muhammad,” had people lining the back wall and out the door at the offices of Youth Uprising in East Oakland, anxious to hear how Muhammad plans to keep Alameda County’s at-risk youth as far away from the juvenile justice system as possible.
As the county’s Chief Probation Officer, Muhammad will oversee the department that works with both adults and juveniles when they are released from jail, making sure they do not violate the terms of their parole or release. For juveniles, this can be a matter of monitoring a court-order GPS ankle bracelet or making sure they are attending school or performing their community service.
Muhammad is an Oakland native whose poverty brief encounters with the law as a teenager give him a unique approach to his new position. According to his own website, DavidMuhammad.com, he spent part of his young life in the foster care system and nearly dropped out of school. According to a profile of Muhammad published by the San Francisco Chronicle, he was arrested three times as a young man and, although charges were never filed against him, his brushes with the law prompted him to reevaluate his life and future.
As a teenager, he got involved with the Omega Boys Club, a support and mentoring organization that promotes nonviolence, and credits them with helping turn his life around. Muhammad earned a degree in journalism from Howard University and took a job as executive director at the Mentoring Center in Oakland, a nonprofit whose mission is to transform the lives of at-risk youth.
Muhammad eventually left Oakland for Washington, DC, and then moved on to New York, where he served as Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Probation. He has since returned to Oakland and was appointed the county’s Chief Probation Officer in December, 2010.
On Thursday night, Judge Trina Thomson, the chief presiding judge in Alameda County, shared the stage with Muhammad and Youth Uprising’s executive director Olis Simmons and expressed her enthusiasm over Muhammad’s appointment. “He thinks outside the box. He’s innovative,” she said. “He’s not afraid of a challenge or to have an argument—we’ve already had a couple. He’s not afraid to share openly what his passion is.”
For the following hour, Muhammad spoke about some of the problems in the juvenile justice system and how he plans to start fixing them. He said that his priorities would be preserving public safety—which he described as the main purpose of all probation departments—while also creating a juvenile justice system that would be more focused on keeping kids out of the system and giving them opportunities to succeed.
Muhammad stressed that his plan hinges on “completely changing, improving and building upon the continuum of care for juvenile offenders.” This “continuum of care” begins with a minor’s arrest, followed by an arraignment likely presided over by Judge Thompson, during which she decides on the best course of action for the young offender. This can be anything from informal supervision to mandatory daily check-ins with a probation officer to a stay in a residential treatment facility. In the severest of cases, young people may be ordered to spend time in Juvenile Hall or be incarcerated by the California Youth Authority.
Muhammad said he will likely focus on investing resources in kids before incarceration becomes necessary, making sure that those who aren’t a danger to society get the chance to turn their lives around through job training, mentorship and counseling programs.
He also stressed the need for dramatically reducing the waiting periods between the various steps that minors go through when they enter the juvenile justice system. For example, he said, a juvenile offender could spend as long as three months under court supervision before being placed in a residential treatment facility. While he said he was not advocating less jail time or softer verdicts from the court, Muhammad vowed to make sure that young people get through the system quickly and efficiently.
A major theme of Muhammad’s discussion was about simply “doing what works.” He said that incentivizing good behavior at juvenile detention facilities is imperative and that he will require all juvenile probation staff to undergo youth development training to help them recognize opportunities to “build on young peoples’ strengths, rather than dwelling on their deficits.”
Using a $35 million award from the state, Muhammad also hopes to build a new juvenile detention facility to replace Camp Sweeney, located in San Leandro and built in 1957, which he said “looks exactly like it’s still 1957.” He said he hopes that by encouraging young people at Camp Sweeney to cooperate and attend all of their classes, they will emerge in a better position to make something of their futures.
He has launched a “listening tour” and begun to have small, informal meetings with probation office staff members to streamline communication within the department. Muhammad also intends to expand the use of ProbStat, a data gathering and analysis program not unlike CompStat, which allows police officers to analyze crime trends and make decision about how to allocate resources. He believes that ProbStat will help leaders in the probation department measure the success of their work and examine their own policies to determine which have the most positive impact.
Simmons kept the hour-long event moving at a fast clip, apologizing that there was only time for two questions from the audience. A question from a representative from Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights asked how Muhammad plans to deal with the portion of Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget that would close most, if not all, of the state’s juvenile detention centers, leaving each county to house their own incarcerated youth.
The question drew murmurs from the audience, and a sigh from Muhammad. “That’s a complicated question,” he said, noting that if the budget passes as-is, counties will have to pay the state approximately $200,000 for each juvenile who is housed in a state facility — something that Muhammad does not consider an option. Instead, he said he will to make sure that Alameda County can house as many of its own juveniles as possible and that he wants to dramatically reduce the number of minors who need long-term incarceration.
As people mingled after the discussion, Anne Marks of Youth Alive, an organization that works with kids to promote nonviolence, said that she knew Muhammad when we worked at the Mentoring Project. “I could not be more excited to have him back in Oakland,” she said. “He really gets the youth, and believes in the innate greatness of young people. He always said that is was our job to tap into that.
Assistant Police Chief Howard Jordan, who shared Marks’ excitement over Muhammad’s appointment, said he remembers him well from his previous work in Oakland. “I knew him years ago, when I was just an officer.” Jordan said he is looking forward to increasing the communication between the Oakland Police Dept and the probations department, and said that Muhammad would certainly be a great leader to do that.
For his part, Muhammad was clear about the issues facing Alameda County’s youth but expressed his confidence that, over time, he could make substantial changes in the juvenile justive system. “I am happy about the excitement people feel about new leadership coming on,” he told the audience. “We’ve got deep entrenched problems. It’s not going to take a week, a month or even a year. In about two years I’ll feel comfortable with you asking me, ‘Where are you with this stuff?’ Call me on it. There are certain things that are going to take longer than others, but I need that heat on me.”