Personal Space


A one-on-one conversation with Maurice Muhammad 

Maurice Muhammad was just 24 and a recent graduate of Miles Law School when someone suggested he interview for the job of magistrate in Birmingham. He wasn’t even sure what a magistrate was, but he was open to the idea, and before he knew it he’d passed the interview and gotten the appointment—making him the last magistrate to be appointed by Richard Arrington, Jr., in 1996.

In 2012, he became chief magistrate for the city of Bessemer. Since then he’s become an advocate for helping people break bad habits that lead them into trouble; helped usher in an amnesty program to clear outstanding warrants; and seen his share of the good, bad, and the strange from a unique vantage point.

B-Metro: What does a magistrate do, exactly?

Muhammad: We’re the gatekeeper to the system. When an individual or police officer lodges a complaint, we look to see if there is enough evidence to move forward with an offense.

B-Metro: What have you learned about how the system works—or in some cases, fails—in your view?

Muhammad: It all depends on the goals for the system. You can set a system that is corrective, or you can set the system where it’s punitive. And what I mean by that is, you can give people the opportunity to correct their mistakes through classes, alternative sentencing, and so forth, or you can just lock people up. But when it’s their time to be released, what are they being released to? Have they done their time or has the time done them? If the root cause has not been settled, the symptoms are going to continue.

I’ve seen judges (use their authority) to say, ‘I’m going to sentence you to get your GED. I’m going to sentence you to get a job. I’m going to sentence you not to come back here any more.’ But they need to be equipped with skills to change the criminal mindset.

B-Metro: How was working in Birmingham different than Bessemer?

Muhammad: For one, in Bessemer, we have an evening court that goes from 4:30 p.m. and sometimes lasts until 8:30. When I worked in Birmingham, we had an arraignment court that started at 2 a.m. and lasted until maybe 5 or 6 in the morning.

B-Metro: That sounds rough.

Muhammad: It was exciting. If you follow hip-hop, Whodini used to have a song called ‘The Freaks Come Out at Night,’ and sometimes that was the case. I couldn’t even begin to start talking about the things I saw on night shift. I saw concert brawls…when Widespread Panic came into the city, it was just that. We didn’t have a lot of fights and all of that you get with certain concerts, but we had elevated arrests in narcotics, soliciting prostitution, vice crimes. A lot the people who followed the band ended up in trouble and couldn’t see the concert because they were in jail.

B-Metro: Tell me about the amnesty program you helped implement.

Muhammad: If a person has a warrant for their arrest for failure to appear in court, or they have not paid their fines, amnesty can give that person an opportunity to say ‘Hey, I was out of town, I just didn’t get back in time for that court date,’ or whatever it is. We give you the opportunity to come in and pay your fine, and then we’ll recall your warrant and send you on your way. You’d be surprised the jubilation people feel when they are clear. I’ve had people cry and say, ‘This is the first time in my adult life that I haven’t had stuff over my head.’ For people who are not in the system, that seems obvious. But if you’ve been in the system—and a lot of times you were introduced to the system at a young age—then it’s a big deal for someone to help you out of the system.

B-Metro: What else has the job taught you?

Muhammad: When I see people come in habitually, I want to see what the problem is, or if there’s a social need. I asked one woman why she kept violating her probation. It hurt her to say this, but she said, ‘Mr. Muhammad, I can’t read. How am I going to report somewhere if I don’t know how to read to get there?’ She was given some (jail) time, and I had friends in elementary education who literally taught her how to read while she was in jail.

The beautiful thing is, some of her co-inmates helped her, too. They were her tutors. So they’re not heartless people; sometimes they’re just in bad situations and bad circumstances. As a matter of fact, one of the young ladies told me that she had a spiritual awakening teaching this woman how to read. She said, ‘Mr. Mohammed, I’m going to go back to school and be a teacher, because I see what it can do when somebody just puts a little time into helping other people.’ It made me feel good.

B-Metro: It sounds like you try to be an advocate.

Muhammad: I’m very community-service minded. One of the greatest life lessons that I’ve ever had my grandmother taught to me: Sometimes you need to do things just because they need to be done. 

YOU SHOULD  KNOW:

Maurice Muhammad, who played basketball at Fiske University, also played in several semi-pro leagues in the U.S. and overseas before entering law school.

One Response to “Personal Space”

  1. Kevin Muhammad says:

    This a beautiful and heart driven interview. Keep up the good work.

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