In a room packed with Alameda County’s most high-profile politicians and community leaders, recently appointed Chief Probation Officer David Muhammad shared his visions Thursday night for improving the juvenile justice system.
The standing-room-only event, called “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-ordered GPS ankle bracelet or making sure they are attending school or performing their community service.
Muhammad is an Oakland native whose poverty and 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 re-evaluate 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 the group 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, D.C., and then moved on to New York, where he served as deputy commissioner of the Department of Probation. He later 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 priority would be to preserve 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.” The continuum begins with a minor’s arrest, followed by an arraignment likely presided over by 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 or 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.