By Rosa Ramirez
California’s state prison population has remained stubbornly high over the past decade. The new Alameda County Chief Probation Officer wants to lead his department in a new direction, one that focuses on prevention. David Muhammad, an Oakland native, favors an approach that promotes incentives to good behavior, rehabilitation and alternatives to incarceration. These are the kinds of methods, according to Muhammad, that get the best results – fewer people in prison and on probation and parole.
“Basically, if we assess you to be low risk, we are going to leave you alone,” Muhammad said in a recent talk to journalists at UC Berkeley. “If the person is high risk, we want to provide services and opportunities, not just the old trail you, nail you and jail you.”
“I’m a reformer. The only reason I’m in this job is to reform and improve the system,” Muhammad added in an interview with healthycal.org after the event. “When I interviewed for this job with the board of supervisors, I told them if you want business as usual, do not select me.”
Muhammad was tapped for his position after the agency spent eight months without a chief probation officer. Donald Blevins, the former chief probation officer, left the agency in April 2010 to lead the Los Angeles County Probation Department, the largest probation office in the country.
Muhammad helms a department that has 2,000 juveniles and 15,000 adults on probation. Eleven thousand of those adults are without a probation officer because of budget cuts. The remaining officers are overworked – each one has caseloads ranging from 100 to 105 people.
“Obviously there’s very little supervision,” Muhammad said.
His challenge now will be to convince stakeholders that targeted supervision of the highest risk cases is the best use of limited resources.
Models that work
Since returning to the East Bay nearly five months ago, Muhammad has met with community leaders, advocates, residents, and youth in Alameda County to generate support for the new direction of the department.
Key projects include creating a token program where youth can get time off from probation if they, for instance, obtain their high school diploma or raise their grade point average. He wants probation officers located in community service centers across the county so people can get services when they check in with their probation officer.
An advocate of rehabilitation programs that include peer and professional counseling, Muhammad pointed to the Missouri Model, a system that juvenile justice advocates across the country tout as a promising alternative to detention centers, as a model that can work in Alameda County.
The Missouri Model centers are small. The staff is trained in youth development. There’s a strong focus on giving teens job and life skills so they can transition back into society. Teens are held responsible for each other’s behavior. They also undergo deep treatment to understand what caused the delinquency.
“You have to perform well in school. That’s how you can earn your way out of the facility. It’s not just doing the time like most places,” Muhammad said. “Your really have to earn your way out by engaging in treatment and rehabilitation.”
Youth offenders who go through the Missouri Model have a lower recidivism level. Seventy percent of teens released in 1999 didn’t return to any correctional program three years later, compared to a 45-to75 percent of the re-arrested rate country wide, according to a study by the Youth Transition Funders Group, “A Blueprint for Juvenile Justice Reform.”
The probation department oversees two juvenile justice facilities: Juvenile Justice Hall and Camp Sweeney. Youth who sent to Camp Sweeney for become wards of the state, and learn anger management and employment skills. Camp Sweeney in San Leandro trains youth ages 15-to-18, who are wards of the state, in anger management and employment skills. But the county, Mohammad said, should have programs that incentivize good behavior.
Muhammad also plans to implement a progress-tracking system similar to CompStat, called ProbStat. ProbStat would collect and analyze data in each probation division. Muhammad would meet once a month with division managers. “[They would] answer to me,” he said, “if they didn’t meet the measure, or be congratulated by me if they met the measure.”
Alameda County has also implemented alternatives to locking up youth and adults, including GPS monitoring and home supervisions. Some programs aimed at persona growth—yoga and literature courses—are being used for those who are in custody.
And in 2007, the county created a multidisciplinary team including heathcare workers, judges, probation officers and child advocates to direct offenders to existing resources. The Alameda County Juvenile Collaborative Court, for instance, helps youth with mental illnesses get the help they need, including mental health screenings, individual and family counseling, and medication.
Studies have found that a host of social conditions affect a person’s health, including where a person lives, occupation, education, and income level. Youth in the juvenile justice system, Muhammad said, need a range of services to support their health, behavior and education. He wants to partner with community groups to streamline services, and create a place where youth can get, for instance, academic tutoring and visits to their probation officer in the same location.
“It’s a place where it’s their space, instead of going to the offices downtown, where it can be a scary place and they can be waiting forever for their probation officer who may or not be there,” said Jackie Johnson media relations associate for Youth Uprising. Their center and the probation department have partnerships that are working well, Johnson said.
The first priority of the chief probation officer, Muhammad told a crowd during the March 17 gathering at YouthUprising in Oakland, is to keep the public safe. Once public safety needs were met, however, the next priority is “to turn people’s lives around,” he said. During that event, the auditorium was filled with youth, juvenile justice advocates, law enforcement and judges. People lined up outside the auditorium for the chance to hear him speak.
“Muhammad comes with a lot of ideas, a lot of energy and it’s unusual, it’s different,” said Lori Jones, director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency. “It’s not what you typically see from a probation chief.”
Muhammad seems like credible leader for this turnaround – he experienced poverty, life in foster care, and the juvenile justice system in his early teens. He credits Omega Boys Club in Oakland with helping him turn his life around. Muhammad also served as Deputy Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation before taking the Alameda County position.
Yet youth advocates acknowledge that despite the pledges of support he’s received from community agencies and service providers, he’ll need to get total buy-in on his proposals. Change doesn’t come fast or easy, even when there are a significant number of people rallying behind the projects, they said.
“His biggest challenge will be to get people to see that change is needed,” said Jones of the county’s social service agency. “He comes from the community, which helps him. People will listen to him. Changing perceptions of probation’s role- getting stakeholders to accept a probation department that’s not about “trail, nail and jail” will be Muhammad’s challenge, she said.
Muhammad agreed. “I need the support to be tangible as well. I’m going to need support with the budget, with partnerships to help on various levels.”
Kaina Walker, mentoring program director with Youth Justice Institute, said Muhammad will also need to focus on re-entry.
“One of the challenges that Muhammad will have to deal with is what to do with juveniles who will be returning from the DJJ system. Who will be monitoring them?” Walker said. “In the meantime, these kids are left out without any jobs, without appropriate housing, without appropriate education.”
Adults returning home from jail or prison, or supporting at-risk kids, will also need jobs – a hard problem to solve.
“People who are highly educated are having a hard time getting job opportunities. For a lot of people who are coming back on probation or parole, they have it worse,” Walker said. “It has a trickle effect. It directly affects the kids. If you mom or dad is coming home those are huge tremendous stressors. The kids feel they have to take over to help.”
Reaching out to the community
Muhammad said he wants to ensure residents’ ideas are heard. One way he plans to involve them is through public town halls starting this summer.
The town halls would be held in various parts of the county and stakeholders, including parents, youths, advocates and service providers would get a chance to “not just be at the table, but be fully engaged,” Muhammad said.
He has already created similar meetings with non-managerial staff his department, something he’s calling “listening tours.” The tours work like this: Muhammad meets with line employees who speak candidly on what’s working and not working in their respective offices. The staff shares with him their ideas on how to improve it. Muhammad then meets with managers to talk about how to correct those issues.
“We’ve got deeply entrenched problems. It’s not going to take a week, a month, a year,” he told the crowd.