Originally published on Oakland Local

If the turnout, enthusiasm and innovative ideas found at an event welcoming David Muhammad as Alameda County’s Chief Probation Officer were any indicator, sweeping changes are in store for juvenile and adult probation.

A “brain trust” of about 100 local politicos, Oakland and Alameda County staffers and other community bigwigs got together March 17 in an effort to catalyze a new approach to the probation system – one that brings together the projects and initiatives being undertaken by stakeholders throughout the county, in an effort to establish a unified front in addressing the issues facing the youth in communities across the county.

The welcome gala for Muhammad was the first of many such gatherings to discuss how to reform the current juvenile justice and adult probation system and institute policies that better improve the lives of youth entering the system. The event was organized by Youth Uprising in East Oakland, a nonprofit geared toward providing youth and young adults with a positive and safe space to develop their potential.

The county probation department oversees 2,000 juveniles who are dispersed throughout a number of programs and institutions, including supervision, treatment facilities and Camp Sweeney. Eleven thousand adults are in the probation system and most don’t have direct supervision. About 50 percent of those on probation live in Oakland and are disproportionately minorities.

Due to the time constraints of the event, Muhammad didn’t have an opportunity to provide an in-depth explanation on all of the ideas for reform he has for the department. But in brief, he proposed a more data-driven, positive-focused approach for helping juveniles stay out of the system and empowering them to improve their lives. He also supported the construction of a new juvenile facility to replace Camp Sweeney – an outdated facility where juveniles are sometimes held while their cases go before the courts.

The department has a lack of coordination of services for both juveniles and youth, Muhammad said. Currently, staffers have been experimenting with their own approaches in lieu of a systematic approach. Also, there hasn’t been effective collection of key data to track the effectiveness of programs, particular the rate in which youth re-offend.

“However, we can build resources and partnerships,” Muhammad said. “We’ll do that.”

Muhammad also recognized the hard work of many community-based associations, such as Youth Uprising – and other stakeholders involved in the juvenile justice system – and said he also wants to build stronger partnerships with those organizations that already have presence on the streets. In fact, it appeared that building a collaborated effort toward bettering the condition of Bay Area youth was the central theme of the meet-up.

Muhammad himself could stand as a symbol of success for youth who have found themselves in trouble with the law. As a youth living in Oakland, Muhammad had his run-ins with the law and struggled to overcome the adversities of poverty and foster care. He found solace in the guidance of the Oakland-based Omega Boys Club. He later attended Howard University’s School of Communications where he studied journalism, served as executive director of The Mentoring Center and held high-ranking positions in the probation departments of both Washington, D.C., and New York City before returning to his home turf.

The mood was electric throughout the event and it was clear that the hiring of Muhammad to one of the most important posts in the county signals an opportunity to make serious changes to the institution.

Trina Thompson, the presiding juvenile judge for Alameda County, spoke about how officials and service providers need to listen to what the youth are saying, and help cultivate relationships that resonate with them more than any policy proposal, photo op or stakeholder meeting could.

To that effect, a video produced by Youth Uprising and aired at the event featured interviews with youth who went through the juvenile justice system. Many of them talked about the importance of having that one person to call if they needed advice or help.

Thompson said she is optimistic about the changes Muhammad can bring to probation.

“All of you said you’re ready for new leadership,” Thompson told the crowd. “Show that by first being supportive, not undermining, and understanding that we are a collection of people who can help each other by collective recognition that we are all bringing something to the table.”


David Muhammad at Youth Uprising by Oakland Local