From Probationer to Probation Chief


I grew up like many of the young people now in the juvenile justice system I oversee – poor, raised by a single mother, in an ineffective school system and having many friends and family involved in illegal activity.

In junior high school, I started off in GATE classes (Gifted And Talented Education), but when I became disinterested in school, and it was no longer “cool” to have good grades, I stopped attending class. I eventually wound up in the foster care system and then in the juvenile justice system.

I was once on probation as a youth in Alameda County, CA, and a little more than 20 years later, I now run the Probation Department in Alameda County. The journey from probationer to Probation Chief has helped shape my ideas and plans on reforming the system. I played football in high school; I had a teacher that took an interest in me and was a mentor; I wasn’t incarcerated for long periods of time when I made mistakes; and, eventually, a community-based organization helped me get into college and paid my tuition. After my last brush with the law at 16, I have never looked back – except to note how I can replicate my experience into an entire system.

After working to reform the local system in Washington, DC and then in New York City, I have returned home to Oakland hoping to reverse some horrible trends: 75% of the people in the system re-offend after being released, although Alameda County is only 12% Black, more than 50% of the youth in the system are Black, and only 30% of Black boys who enter middle school in Oakland public schools graduate high school.

And for these poor results, we spend a lot of money. It costs my department $135,000 per year for each youth in the juvenile hall. When youth are sent to the state system in California, it costs an astronomical $225,000 per youth, annually. Studies show that each time there is a shooting, it costs society approximately $1 million. When you factor in fire department, ambulance and police response, a hospitalization, incarceration and a trial of the perpetrator, those costs for a single shooting can top $1 million. Research further shows that investing just a fraction of those costs on prevention and intervention can be far more effective and save millions.

But America has an insatiable appetite for a costly, ineffective system. We have the highest incarceration rate in the world. And in addition to being ineffective and expensive, incarcerating youth who are not real threats to the public safety can make the problem worse.

Young people who are truant or commit property offenses or who are drug abusers are often locked up with youth who have been involved in more serious, violent crime. The mostly younger, more impressionable youth who have been incarcerated learn from their more hardened peers and often leave confinement worse than they came in and then return as seasoned, violent offenders.

The system also needs to change for juveniles who have committed serious offenses and who do need to be separated from society to protect the public safety. For these youth, while incarcerated, they need more than a bed, a meal and a substandard education. They need to be rehabilitated. They need a quality education, appropriate mental health services, help with making better decisions and a detailed plan to return to the community with wrap-around services.

This is the difficult task I have ahead of me – but one I intend on achieving.

In Alameda County, we will implement a system that is based on Positive Youth Development – where we build on young people’s assets and strengths, while still holding them accountable. We will connect young people and their families to services, supports and opportunities that help them overcome their challenges and provides for their needs. We will incentivize achievement by providing rewards to youth who improve their academic performance and who remain out of trouble. We will also implement a system of graduated sanctions to immediately hold accountable youth who continue in delinquent behavior. We will also have a trauma-focused approach, where we take into account the pain and trauma youth experience that contribute to their behavior and work to effectively address that trauma. And we will do all of this in strong partnership with the community.

My personal experience has proven that if given another chance and the right type of support, young people can excel and succeed. My work is to now turn that into a system.

David Muhammad is the Chief Probation Officer of the Alameda County Probation Department. He is responsible for overseeing 20,000 people on probation, a staff of 600 and a $90 million budget.

  • Cassandra Saunders

    I am truly inspired by the article above. How can one get a grass roots movement started within their community? As a Mom with two (2) sons (19 & 7) and a host of “other sons & daughters” (their friends) within the NY Long Island community make a serious effort for a change. I feel called to do SOMETHING more at this point to make a difference as a lay person, but what is the question?

    My church (Mt. Sinai Baptist Church Cathedral/Roosevelt, NY/Pastor Mackey) makes a sincere effort each week by hosting a Friday Night Live service for the youth in our community. However, I personally feel the need to be more involved. I see too many young people with promise in their eyes to sit by idly and not let them know they DO have the keys within to create the lives they desire. Our youth ARE our future; but way too many are being distracted to realize they CAN make a difference for all of our futures.

    I work full-time and run a household; but am willing to volunteer – suggestions are welcome. It is now time to give back; despite limited resources.

  • issa olufemi jelani

    I am in rural North Carolina, 65 yrs old , came to NC after my grandmother got alzheimers. Taught GED, Upward Bound in NY and NC. We have no programs. I want to do something. I ask church folk to start afterschool programs, or instead of having regular preaching on Sundays, to have some kind of workshops for families, especially grand,or great-grandmothers raising children who are sometimes too lenient when it comes to excelling in school, or excusing smoking drugs. I have a BA in English, and went to grad school in clinical social work, so my heart is in the right place. But there are a lot of people who would like to do something positive. Thanks for being on the same wave length. Its time to make a change. Our mayor (New Bern, NC) recently called the young people in the projects who commit crimes thugs and vowed to get rid of them. But yet there are no leadership programs in the housing development headed by a black minister with a masters degree from CORNELL. Fix Me Jesus.

  • Rashidah Grinage

    This is exactly the kind of leadership we need: visionary but also practical. It’s up to us in the community to demand that our resources be used in the most effective and constructive, not to mention, humane, ways.
    We need to provide political support and encouragement that will result in County resources to be utilized in the ways that Mr. Muhammad describes.

  • Donald L Macleay

    The talk is the right talk: “while incarcerated, they need more than a bed, a meal and a substandard education. They need to be rehabilitated. They need a quality education, appropriate mental health services, help with making better decisions and a detailed plan to return to the community with wrap-around services”

    But we have heard that talk and seen no walk before, especially here in Oakland California. This is nothing new he is saying and the real question is not what the head of probation will say, but what the governments of the state, city and county will do. They hold the cards and decide how to prosecute, incarcerate, parole and provide (or not provide) services that will make this happen or not. For a long time we have been hearing the problem and obvious solutions described very well. So, do we have the political support in Alameda County for this and do we have the money?

  • Bruce Reilly

    We also need to stop sending children into cages as if it were after school detention. Many of these crimes should not carry prison time at all, and children should not be treated as adults- getting as much as Life Without Parole (we only recently abolished the death penalty for children).

    And “rehabilitation” is a word we need to get out of our vocabulary. It implies that people are being restored to a healthy disposition, yet most have never been in a healthy state. Growing up and becoming educated behind bars should be called “habilitation.” Furthermore, all the programs in the world will not overcome the discriminatory policies behind housing, jobs, and education that lock out even the “rehabilitated.” Such policies need to be overturned.

  • Demetric Muhammad

    Very happy and very proud of Brother David. His confidence, sincerity, passion and faith will ensure his success in such an enormous undertaking. He will be and is a great blessing to the Alameda system. I will continue to pray for his and all the youth under his charge that they be successful beyond their grandest dreams. Again very, very proud of this very inspiring brother.

  • Hiawatha Bouldin

    I grew up in Chicago Illinois. The first time I saw the inside of Cook County Jail/Juvenile Center was at a gang facilitator conference 8 years after I retired from the U.S. Air Force. I grew up in a community stricken with poverty and discrimination, but I had resources that children today, (especially black boys) do not have. We know what we need to do and what we should have in order to save our next generations, but are we (the entire american society), ready to come together and work for what we need. Equal treatment, equal resources, equal opportunities and the acceptance that we are all capable of being successful and productive citizens.

  • KimB

    I wish you continued success. Programs like these are needed around the country. I live in Texas where our children are thrown into the system for minor infractions from skipping school to a school yard fight. I do advocate holding the child responsible, but I do not advocate starting a criminal record for a child for minor infractions. My son had a fist fight in school ( another male groped his cousin and he hit the young man). The school originally had him charged with felony assault. (I’m not kidding.) Fortunately, I work for attorneys and we were able to get that charge removed. What happens to the children whose parents don’t work for attorneys? Again, I do advocate punishment but it should fit the crime. Long story short, my son was put into SAC (a school for misbehaved children) for the remainder of the year (more than 7 months) and was not allowed to play basketball the following year. Short of suing the school district, this we could not change. This killed something in my son. I’ve said that to say, I wish you success so that other young black males do not have to endure this sort of treatment.

  • Karen E. Dabney

    Much respect and appreciation, Mr. Muhammad!

Last modified: September 1, 2011 at 8:45 pm
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