David Muhammad on Reinventing Juvenile Probation

Posted April 23, 2019, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

David Muhammad, National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform

In just one year, more than 380,000 young people were put on probation — either formally or informally, according to a 2018 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

It’s a statistic that David Muhammad is dedicated to changing.

A criminal justice and youth development expert, Muhammad currently serves as executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform. Prior to joining the nonprofit, he worked as the chief probation officer of the Alameda County Probation Department in California, the deputy commissioner of New York City’s Department of Probation, and the chief of committed services for Washington DC’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.

Otherwise put: Muhammad has seen — on repeat — how juvenile probation plays out in the real world. And he’s far from impressed.

The Casey Foundation’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke with Muhammad about juvenile probation. Their conversation explores why the current approach is broken, why involving families in the solution is essential and what young people really need to thrive.

A big thank you to David Muhammad for chatting with us!

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In This Episode on Juvenile Justice and Probation, You’ll Learn

  • How probation works in the juvenile justice system.
  • The shortcomings of juvenile probation in America today.
  • How probation acts as a pipeline to incarceration.
  • The impact of the juvenile justice system on families and communities.
  • The role that families and communities can play in supporting youth.
  • What a better model of support looks like for young people in need.
  • Examples of diversion and community-based alternatives to detention.

Conversation Clips

In David Muhammad’s own words…

“Probation is probably the least known factor in the justice system while being the largest component of the justice system.”

“The damage that the justice system causes — that probation causes — is significant.”

“It's not like those young people don't need something. They just don't need a probation officer. They don't need searches and monitors and surveillance. They need adults in the community who care about them to engage them.”

“When we have a young person who does need some involvement in the system, then we need to assess their strengths, assess their needs and then develop a plan with the youth and the family at the table.”

“If you're going to be successful, then you must serve that family because that's where that young person is living and going back to if they're in custody.”

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View Transcript

Lisa Hamilton:
From the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I'm Lisa Hamilton… and this is CaseyCast.

At the Casey Foundation, we work to build a brighter future for children and families, and this work entails helping to reform our nation's juvenile justice system. Within this system, probation is the most likely outcome for young people in juvenile courts, the end result of roughly a third of all delinquency cases nationally. This means that — according to the most recent data — about 155,000 young people are placed on probation by courts each year, and many more are placed on probation informally.

With me today to help explain these numbers and what it means for youth is David Muhammad, who serves as the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform.

Improving juvenile probation is a topic that David knows very well. It's a focal point of his work with the Institute, which lends expertise and assistance to a variety of organizations that are transforming the country's juvenile and criminal justice systems. David has worked on the front lines of this field for a long time, including posts as the chief probation officer of the Alameda County Probation Department in California, and the deputy commissioner of New York City's Department of Probation.

Welcome David, it's so exciting to have you with us today.

David Muhammad:
Thank you, I'm glad to be here.

Lisa Hamilton:
Well, to get this conversation started, why don't we talk a little bit about what probation is. Lots of people have heard the term but may not really know what's required, or especially what's required for young people. Could you talk a bit about what probation is and how it works in the juvenile justice system?

David Muhammad:
Certainly. Probation is probably the least known factor in the justice system, while being the largest component of the justice system. The vast majority of people in the justice system, both adult and juvenile, are in the probation system.

On the juvenile side, probation has a number of functions. It plays the intake function. When youth are arrested all of them are sent to probation to either hold in detention while they're going through their adjudication or court process. Also, the probation department determines which youths get sent to the District Attorney's Office or Prosecutor's Office for prosecution.

And once the case is decided, the vast majority of youth get placed on probation for supervision. And that can be based upon where you are in the country, that could be one year, two years, seven years, up until either your 18th or 19th birthday. Different jurisdictions have different cutoffs and age times, but the probation departments around the country serve the vast majority of youth and families in the system.

And just one note on its start. John Augustus in Boston in the 1800s created probation. What happened is, he went to court; a guy was being charged with larceny and he asked the judge, could you not send the guy to jail and I'm gonna teach him how to be a shoe cobbler, like he was John Augustus. And this old saying that no good deed goes unpunished, the judge kept calling John back to court to have him work with people. And the first probation laws in the country, in Massachusetts, are called the John Augustus laws.

It's unfortunate that we've come so far away from what that was, which was A) an alternative to custody, B) a support and a job, training and placement. That's how probation was created and that's what we need to get back to, because we've gone far away from that original design of probation.

Lisa Hamilton:
What actually happens with young people on probation? Is it just checking in, making sure that they are where there supposed to be? Give folks a sense of what actually happens when a young person's on probation.

David Muhammad:
What it mostly amounts to is a young person having to check in with their probation officer, depending upon the level of supervision they’re on. It's either once a month, or twice a month, or once a week. And then often, the probation department with their colleagues, with other probation officers, come to that young person's house and conduct searches.

When they have these check-ins, they often have drug tests. And still to this day, for the majority of youth on probation, that's what it is. The other thing that's very important is when they're placed on probation by the court, they're often given a long list of conditions. Go to school and go to class every single day, check-in with your probation officer one or two or three times a month, don't use any drugs. Do whatever your probation officer says, that's on all of the… that's the catch all phrase on many of the lists of conditions. And it can go on and on and on.

And in the court — where the young person and their family don't know court speak, they don't know what's going on — then they at some point get a list of conditions that they have to comply with, it is not infrequent that they sometimes don't comply to every single detailed condition of probation. When that happens, they are now subject to arrest and incarceration, even if they come late to a meeting with their probation officer.

Lisa Hamilton:
So what we often talk about at Casey is how this then becomes a pipeline to incarceration. That this long list of conditions is rarely anything an adult could comply with, that this is really counter to what we know about young people.

David Muhammad:
Yes, and many adults couldn't even understand the conditions. Even when we're supposedly doing good, sending youth to programs, I have seen many times a youth has Program A on Monday and Program B on Wednesday and Program C on Friday, and if they don't go to every class, they can get violated. Or sometimes, that drug treatment class they're going to when they have history of drug usage, sometimes conflicts with a job that they might have. And the P.O. will tell them, you have to go to the class and not go to work. It really is difficult to comply with these long lists.

Sometimes the conditions conflict with one another and sometimes the program that they're being sent to isn't being operated appropriately or doesn't exist anymore.

And all of the time, whenever anything goes wrong, the only person who gets held accountable is the young person. And that often leads to incarceration. Violations of probation, which are really disproportionately affecting children of color, often lead to incarceration. There are many juvenile detention centers around the country that the majority of admissions are not for young people committing new acts of delinquency or offenses, but there for violations of probation.

Lisa Hamilton:
So how does probation impact young people? We certainly understand that the consequences of not complying can be incarceration, but what's the experience like for a young person who's on probation? Are there other impacts that people just may not appreciate?

David Muhammad:
There's now a wealth of knowledge, and studies, research, that shows involvement in the juvenile justice system in and of itself, even controlling for other factors, like poverty and education and neighborhood, that involvement in the justice system, and again primarily that's probation, makes young people have worse outcomes. You're much more likely to drop out of school and you're much more likely to later have adult incarceration experience, because of your involvement in the justice system.

One story. There was a young man who was in the 10th grade, working with his family, this was a few years ago. He was doing well in school, he had swimming lessons after school. He was trying to impress a young girl. He had a pocket knife in his pocket that he took from his father's room and trying to impress some girl he did something really stupid with threatening another student with a knife. No one was hurt, he had never been in trouble before. He was arrested, he was held in juvenile hall for 35 days. When his mother came to see him, he didn't talk to her. And when he finally got out, he said, had I started talking I would have cried, and had I cried I'd have really been singled out and been messed with inside of the facility. When he got out, he was placed on electronic monitoring. There was no reason for him to be placed on electronic monitoring. That made him unable to go to his swim lessons. And most often in that scenario, young people get deeper into the system.

So, you go in having no connection with other young people who commit delinquent acts, now you're in a facility full of young people who have been accused of delinquent acts. You sometimes now associate more with young people who are now getting in trouble often because of their engagement in the justice system. You now can't go to the enrichment that your family had connected you to, in this case the swimming lesson, and you've missed now 30 days of school. He was a B student in 10th grade of high school.

So, the damage that the justice system causes, that probation causes, is significant. The other big thing I'll say is the fines and fees. When you're on probation, your family is given fines and fees to pay for the probation officer, to pay for the report the probation department submits to the court, to pay for any days that you spent in juvenile hall. And, of course, we're talking about the vast majority of young people in the system come from impoverished families and neighborhoods.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, we're compounding the stress on their families, both by having them participate in this system but then also financially burdening their families as well.

David Muhammad:
Absolutely, we're making youth and families worse not better.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, David, you've talked about the impact on individual young people who are involved in the justice system, and even some impact for their families with this fees and fines issue, but how does involvement in the juvenile justice system impact local communities as well?

David Muhammad:
Even if we just stick with the money question, it costs on average about $150,000 per year, per youth, for their involvement in the justice system. That's a lot of money. And when you look at the concentration of youth in small pockets, in neighborhoods that are already suffering from poverty and from low-performing schools, from the proliferation of liquor stores, from the easy access to guns and drugs. Then you have this significant amount of taxpayer money not going to develop those communities, to improve those schools, to have economic development for those families, but going towards an ineffective, harmful, and excessively expensive system. So, it really continues to deteriorate neighborhoods when you have large numbers of young people in the system.

When you can draw a map on a system of where the young people come from, they often come from these concentrated neighborhoods of poverty, blight and low-performing schools. There's a project that was called The Million Dollar Blocks in New Orleans, New York and Chicago, that looked at these short blocks that had millions of dollars being spent to pluck these people out of their neighborhoods, put them in isolation for some time, and then put them back into their uninvested in community. And that's what happens to young people. It is further destroying the communities and it's an enormous amount of resource that could be going to develop those communities.

Lisa Hamilton:
And you mentioned the cost of incarceration, but when we've got young people on probation for years at a time what's the cost even of supervision for young people?

David Muhammad:
It's enormous. And remember, the probation departments around the country also run the juvenile detention centers and they run juvenile supervision. So generally, the cost of a probation officer in many places runs on average about $125,000, much higher in places like California and New York. But about $125,000, that means salary, benefits, equipment. That's for every probation officer. And because of supervision we have a lot of probation officers in the country.

Then again, you have the drug tests, and the monitoring, and the supervision, and the courts, and the court dates. It is a lot when you add it all up, prosecutors, and public defenders, and judges. It's an enormous cost for something that is not only not doing good, it's actually doing harm. So, we only "need" a small fraction of the young people that are currently in the system, in that system. That's the small number of people who are genuinely a risk to public safety. Despite what we might believe for those not heavily involved in this work, there's a small number of young people in the system who rise to the level of being a real threat to public safety.

Lisa Hamilton:
That is a really important thing for folks to understand, is the stunning amount of resources that are consumed in this process that really aren't going to creating the kinds of opportunities, positive opportunities for young people, that we want them to have. I want to turn a bit I guess to what we should be doing for young people. If probation isn't the answer, at least the way probation is currently practice isn't the answer, what should we be doing with these young people? Are there other strategies we need to be employing to help them have the positive outcomes we want them to have?

David Muhammad:
Yes. I mean, in a phrase, we need to reduce, improve and reinvest. In the last 10 years, we've had a significant reduction, about almost a 60% reduction in youth incarcerated. And while that is a significant success, we can do a lot more, because we still have nearly 200,000 youth on probation supervision in the country. So, we need to significantly reduce the number of youths in the juvenile justice system. That will produce considerable savings. We need to then reinvest those savings in youth, in families, in community.

What you would have is about 25% of the current number of youths in the system is probably the amount, and very likely even smaller, who would remain, meaning, they need some level of engagement with the system because of their high risk of being a public safety risk.

The rest of that enormous amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars, should go to developing, should go to those communities that were hardest hit by mass incarceration, should go to develop those communities to provide services for young people in the way of educational assistance, and job preparation and placement, and college assistance, and mental health services, and drug treatment services, and housing. As well as that for families and economic development in those communities.

Lisa Hamilton:
In order to achieve the kind of reductions that you are talking about, I think we ought to start with what I think the science often tells us, is that most of these young people even though they have gotten into trouble or been involved in some delinquent behavior, actually don't need anything, any intervention after something happens. Could you speak more about brain science and what it tells about just how young people grow up, what the normal development process will create, which means we don't need to have all these young people supervised or incarcerated?

David Muhammad:
This is a point that I must say I had to learn, and accept, and develop, because I was all about let's hire good P.O.s and do good stuff with young people. And while I still think that that's incredibly important with the few youth you have left, what the science shows is the best thing is to do nothing. And that is so difficult to comprehend from the layperson in the community who sees this young person stole my neighbor's car or stole my car. To accept that doing nothing is better than engaging them is hard to accept, and I totally understand that.

A couple of things. One, the science actually says that. It's actually better just to leave them alone and they will age out of delinquent behavior and won't be sucked into a system that makes them worse. But the other thing is, when we have intervention, especially for youth who are not at the high-risk spectrum, that intervention shouldn't be a justice intervention. It should be community services, it should be restorative in nature, restorative justice programs, mentoring, educational assistance. So, we're beginning to see some examples of that.

As we're talking, I'm at the county building in Los Angeles working with the Probation Department, and they have taken — because it's a gargantuan department — they have taken millions of dollars and put them in a non-justice agency called the Office of Diversion and Reentry, to let that agency work with young people at low-risk levels. They've given another $11 million and gave it to a community foundation for that community foundation to procure services from nonprofit organizations. And this is… they've got to do more of that, because that's only a tiny part of their $900 million a year budget.

But that is the beginnings of doing what we need to do, is reinvesting money from the system into the community and providing positive youth development approaches. And when we provide those services not from a justice standpoint, and I'll just give one more story from LA about how they got to this place, because they got to it from a very difficult place where thousands of young people were on what was being called "voluntary probation,” which meant these were young people who had not committed any criminal offense. They were "at risk" and they were being given a probation officer. And this had happened for years at the cost of millions of dollars.

Thankfully, the new administration at the Probation Department in LA has eliminated this practice, and that's how you have some of those dollars being put into the community. Because it's not like those young people don't need something, they just don't need a probation officer. They don't need searches and monitors and surveillance. They need adults in the community who care about them to engage them.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's what we often hear, terms like diversion and community-based alternatives. If you could just help listeners understand what that means in practical terms, what kinds of supports young people end up having access to.

David Muhammad:
Absolutely. Something in fact, I'll give another example, that we're doing in Oakland is called the Neighborhood Opportunity and Accountability Board, where when a police officer in the Oakland Police Department is arresting a young person for delinquent acts they've assessed, that they are instead of taking them to probation or a detention center to be processed and later be placed on probation, they're taking them to a community center. And that community center's community members and service providers working with that young person. Then they go before a council of neighborhood leaders, and that council of neighborhood leaders has a series of services. They have restorative justice, they have mentoring, case management, educational assistance and family counseling that they have available to them.

What they don't have available to them is detention or incarceration, and that's what's called a diversion. Young people who would otherwise be formally going through the system, they're diverted to an alternative. And there's several different alternatives, and then there are alternatives even while you're in the system. Something the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative really made successful is called Evening Reporting Centers. Say you have a young person with a more serious case, and they need to actually go to court, that doesn't mean they need to be locked up while they go to court.

In Cook County, Illinois and in Washington, D.C., and in many other places around the country they have these things called Evening Reporting Centers, where instead of being locked up while going to court, every day after school you go to a community and get help with homework and some type of enrichment, a music studio, a computer lab, basketball. Then you get driven home by the staff after the Evening Reporting Center closes.

And in D.C., where I worked, we for five years did this and 96% of the youth, hundreds of youth we put into this program, showed up to court and did not have a new offense during that process. So, you can be really successful in having either outright diversions entirely from the system, or alternatives to detention.

Lisa Hamilton:
With data like that, what makes it so difficult to get systems to pursue other strategies?

David Muhammad:
You know, it's quite incredible because you often have probation departments saying we need an evidence-based practice, and show me your outcome evaluation, which is fine. The irony is the probation system doesn't have any evidence of effectiveness. In fact, evidence shows that it's not effective.

Lisa Hamilton:
The opposite.

David Muhammad:
Quite the opposite. And we're really slow to change. Bureaucracies are extraordinarily difficult to change. The other thing I just have to say here, because it's something that is going to be very difficult when we start being serious about reform, is we have to start partnering with unions in a way where we understand that we want to keep labor working, but we also have to hold people accountable. Because sometimes you have government officials, not all the time, sometimes you have government officials who want to make reforms and changes, and then they're held back because, not the people doing the work, but the union representatives are threatened by it.

We don't like to talk about that a lot in the reform world because we're progressives and in our larger politics we're very in lockstep with unions. But we have to start being honest around some of the barriers to reform.

Lisa Hamilton:
Because I think what you're revealing or acknowledging is that there are thousands of adults employed in this system that incarcerates and supervises these young people. So that obviously is a part of what makes it difficult sometimes in order to pursue different approaches that might create opportunities in different parts of the community, but maybe not in these sorts of concentrated facilities.

David Muhammad:
Precisely right. In Wayne County, Illinois where Detroit is, they eliminated a large swath of their formal probation officer position. But it made so many opportunities for those individuals who wanted to do good work with youth to work in the community systems that were created to replace it.

And there's other examples. In Washington, D.C. right now, the system reduced the number of youth in private, out of area residential placements, and brought those young people home, and then invested the savings from not spending the enormous amount of money on private placements in sometimes called Credible Messenger Mentoring, which is people in the community providing mentoring for those young people.

So, we have these small glimpses of this department's doing this little thing, and that department's doing that little thing. What we need to do is bring it all together and make it the system that's most ideal.

Lisa Hamilton:
You've certainly helped us understand that lots of young people don't need to be supervised or incarcerated, that there are ways we need to be reinvesting in positive youth development opportunities, rather than these sorts of punitive mechanisms. But you do acknowledge that there might be a number of young people who still need to be a part of the probation system, and that's a part of what the Casey Foundation's report last year helped to highlight: What is an alternative vision for probation for this smaller group of young people who might need it. I'd like to explore with you, reimagine what would probation look like in the future. What is it that you think we're getting wrong and what could it be?

David Muhammad:
Absolutely, with the caveat that we're talking about a significantly less number population of youth who would be under supervision from a probation department, one thing is because of the years of punitive deficit-based juvenile justice system behavior, we might even want to go away from the name probation or juvenile justice system. But regardless of what it's named, we're talking about a system that builds on the strengths and assets of young people, that engages families, cares about families and communities.

So, when we have a young person who does need some involvement in the system, then we need to assess their strengths, assess their needs, and then develop a plan with the youth and the family at the table. Develop a plan that will connect them to services, and supports, and opportunities that build on their strengths and address their needs. We need to shift the job of a probation officer to be one who is responsible and held accountable to developing with the youth and their family goals within a certain level of domains, like education, employment, housing, and if it's an issue mental health and drug treatment, and connection, maybe mentoring. And then determining for instance what are the three greatest needs in those domains. Which of the three are the biggest needs?

And then let's develop a goal in each of those three. In education we want to get you your high school diploma. In employment, we want to get you a job. In connection, we want to get you in mentoring. Then that's going to be the focus of our time on probation and my job as a P.O. is A) to identify those with you, and then connect you to a community service that's going to help you achieve the goal. Once I've done that, my job as P.O. is just to be quality assurance on how that is going. How is the job program going? How is the mentoring going? How is the tutoring going that we connected you with?

And obviously to ensure the young person's not engaging in any continued delinquent acts, but they won't if those connection are going well. That's how we have to shift the work of probation and the job description of a probation officer.

Lisa Hamilton:
It sounds more like a life coach thing than it does-

David Muhammad:
That's exactly right.

Lisa Hamilton:
-an officer. I'm curious about the role of families in this work. When we talk about juvenile justice, we rarely hear lots of conversation about the role of family to help this young person succeed. Could you talk a bit more about what the vision might be about how they engage families in supporting this young person's aspirations and goals?

David Muhammad:
Absolutely. When that plan that I mentioned is developed to determine what are the greatest needs and strengths of this young person and how do we connect them to services to build on those strengths and address those needs, the family has to be front and center and really be leading that conversation. It might be facilitated by the system, and the system certainly should be responsible for resourcing that plan, but at the head of that discussion is the youth and their family. Because regardless of how long, and sometimes it's too long the system are involved in young people's lives, regardless of how long they're involved, what will still be there always is that young person's family and their community, so that should be prioritized. How do we get a good positive connection to the family and to the community?

We're never gonna be successful "serving" the youth in isolation of their family. We have to be able to provide family strengthening, and connection, and family counseling if need be, and support to the members in that family. I've had this discussion with probation officers in places around the country where they say, we're only meant to serve and authorized to serve the youth.

Lisa Hamilton:
The young person.

David Muhammad:
The young person. I said, but if you're going to be successful, then you must serve that family because that's where that young person is living and going back to if they're in custody. And again, if we strip all of this bravado law enforcement stuff that we can get involved in, we want to support families. And again, the vast majority of youth in the system are families who have struggled, who have struggled with employment and have gone through poor performing schools and live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. We need to support these families and these neighborhoods./

Lisa Hamilton:
Wonderful, I think that is extraordinary advice. You've given us a couple of examples of success stories. Do you have others where you have seen systems get it right? And what kinds of successes are they having?

David Muhammad:
A couple. On the reduction note, when I was leaving Oakland in 2004 to go to D.C. to be a Deputy Director of the Justice System there, there was an argument about building a new juvenile detention center. It was going to be the largest per capita juvenile hall in the country, with 560 beds. Van Jones, who was just a local advocate then, fought to not have this facility built. There was also some nimby, some neighborhood stuff where they were going to build the facility. Those two things won over, so they built a smaller facility in a different place, but they still built a 360-bed facility.

Today, there are 60 youth in that facility. We certainly didn't need a 560-bed facility, but we didn't need a 360-bed facility. Part of that is using the principles of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which is assess youth's risk level using a validated, unbiased risk assessment. Young people who are low risk should never be touched by the system; they certainly shouldn't be detained by the system. Young people should be allowed to go home, even if they're going to go through the court process. Go home, have some sort of alternative, I talked about Evening Reporting Centers, which we started in Alameda County.

Then have the default, have the normal decision to be to go home. Only reserve detention for a small number of higher risk young people. Again, that's a probation function. And that's what happened in Alameda County and in other places like Washington, D.C., where JDAI has been very successful.

And again, when young people do need some time out from the community, the state Missouri got it right, is kind of the first to get it right on having facilities that are education-focused, rehabilitation-focused, treatment-oriented for those young people that need treatment. Not punitive, not prison-like, but more community college-like.

So, there's hope out there, right? But we have a long way to go still.

Lisa Hamilton:
That we do.

Well, I appreciate the vision and the practical perspective you have brought to this conversation, helping us understand that the science really tells us most young people don't need any intervention, but those that might need support we can think about how to do that in very different ways than we've been pursuing in this country for many, many years. To keep them in their communities, to really focus on their strengths, and really put them on the path to success, to focus on the opportunities that they need to have rather than the supervision and compliance and punitive approaches that we have been pursuing in the past.

Thank you for giving us a vision of something very different and thank you so much for all the work that you are doing to help reform juvenile justice systems across the country. It was great to have you on the show.

David Muhammad:
Thank you very much. Pleasure to be here and thank you and all the great work at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Lisa Hamilton:
Thank you so much. And I want to thank our listeners for joining us, as well.

If you've enjoyed today's conversation, please rate our show on Apple Podcasts to help others find us. You can ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter by using #CaseyCast. To learn more about Casey, the work of our guest, and to download the Foundation's report on probation, you can find our show notes at AECF.org/podcast.

Also, if you're interested in improving juvenile justice, join our free online community of professionals and advocates at JDAIconnect.org.

Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you a bright future.

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