Alameda Probation Chief sees opportunity in prison reform

When David Muhammad became the Chief Probation Officer for Alameda County six months ago, he had big ideas about how to change the system for the better.

“Departments around the country have been good at messing with people and not so good at helping people,” Muhammad said. That’s something he wants to change in Alameda County, especially when it comes to getting low-level offenders integrated into the community after they are released, instead of seeing them land back in prison.

Muhammad got his opportunity to oversee a big shift in corrections almost as soon as he arrived in Alameda County. His appointment as Chief Probation Officer coincided neatly with what many are calling California’s largest prison reform in decades. The change transfers responsibility for low-level offenders to the county, with probation departments playing a key role in the transition as well as the ongoing management of non-violent offenders.

The Public Safety Realignment Act (Assembly Bill 109), signed into law on April 4, 2011 is a key piece of Gov. Brown’s plans to reduce the State prison population by 34,000 in two years as ordered by the US Supreme Court.

No one will actually be released from their sentences because of the legislation, but a significant number of people will be incarcerated in county jails instead of state prisons and supervised by county probation departments instead of state parole officers.

Only people who have committed low-level non-violent, non-serious, non-sex crimes will qualify for the switch. “A non, non, non as some of us are calling it,” Muhammad said.

On October 1, California will move 848 prisoners from state prisons to Alameda County jails to finish their sentences. The county anticipates an additional 47 new inmates each month after that.

Also, any low-level parolee from Alameda County who violates their parole will go to county jail instead of back to the state prison where they served their sentence.

Once realignment is in full swing, the county expects 267 more people in jail on any given day than are serving time there today.

The legislation also tasks Muhammad with overseeing the entire realignment effort for Alameda County. He’s working with a team that includes the Alameda County Sherriff, District Attorney, Public Defender, and presiding Judge, as well as Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts and Alex Brisco, Deputy Director of Alameda County Health Care Services Agency.

Together, they’ll figure out how to make the changes in their respective departments. As hopeful as Muhammad and others are about the potential of realignment, they wish they had more funds to make the state-mandated changes.

“We got shafted on the funding formula,” Muhammad said.

The formula, developed by the State Department of Finance and agreed to by County Administrative Officers (CAO) and California State Association of Counties (CSAC) is weighted so that counties that have been sending more low-level offenders to state prison get a larger percentage of the $354 million allocated to realignment in the first year.

Counties like Alameda and San Francisco already keep more of their low-level offenders in the county, and send less people to state prisons than other counties, according to Muhammad.

San Bernardino, for example, a county with similar population size and violent crime rate to Alameda, sends at least twice as many people to state prison. Using the current formula, San Bernardino will get $25.8 million in additional funds from the state the first year, while Alameda gets $9.2 million.

“We have the city with the highest crime rate in the state,” Muhammad said. He’d like to see Oakland’s funding in line with cities like Bakersfield.

Sergeant J.D. Nelson of the Alameda County Sherriff’s department said they have the space for the new prisoners in county jail. But they still need the additional state funds for new inmates. “You need to be provided with money,” he said, “to feed and clothe them.”

Eventually, Muhammad’s department expects to supervise and serve an estimated 1,900 new cases.

“I hope that it’s actually huge — that we are doing a much, much better job than the State had been doing,” said Muhammad.

The state, he added, has focused too much on incarceration instead of rehabilitation.

Muhammad wants to shift the focus towards rehabilitation by changing the county’s risk assessment system. When a person is first released to the probation department, officers there assess their likelihood to commit another crime. Probation officers then give the most attention to the people who are at the highest risk.

While this system is good in theory, Muhammad said, they are incorrectly assessing people. Under the current system, someone likely to commit 18 small thefts will score the same as someone likely to commit armed robbery – and will be supervised accordingly.

A study by The Pew Center for the States, however, concludes that low-risk people do better with less supervision.

For example, low-risk people are more likely to have a job, Muhammad said, but if they have to go to the probation office during working hours to meet with a probation officer once a week, they are more likely to lose that job.

Muhammad identified another crucial area where the Alameda County probation can improve – he wants to get the department to the point where each probation officer supervises 50 people.

“Right now,” he said, “the ratio is all over the place.”

Currently 15,000 people are on probation in Alameda County. Eleven thousand of them don’t have probation officers because of a lack of staffing and funding.

AB 109 will provide some of that funding.

“I actually see this as an opportunity where we can fix everything at once,” Muhammad said.

The main challenges for people reentering society are finding a job and housing, Muhammad said.

For help with these services, the probation department turns to people like Pastor Raymond Lankford of the non-profit Healthy Oakland. Their offices on San Pablo Avenue in West Oakland are a one-stop shop for human service needs.

Healthy Oakland hasn’t made any changes to prepare for the realignment yet, Lankford said. But they expect to ask for more funding if they see an increase in the number of people they serve.

Like Muhammad, Lankford is hopeful that California’s prison reforms will shift from punishment to rehabilitation. “It hasn’t proved beneficial to our society, keeping people incarcerated,” Lankford said.

Muhammad and the re-alignment executive committee plan to present a re-alignment proposal to the Alameda County Board of Supervisors in mid-September.

They have yet to decide how to spend the money, but it is likely the largest allotment will go to the Sherriff’s department, followed by probation, then programs and services, with a small amount going to the District Attorney’s office.

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