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.

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