What if we could bring uncommon partners, people with lived experience and longtime advocates together to tackle some of our most difficult problems?

That’s the idea behind the new Allies in Healthier Systems for Health & Abundance in Youth, a program formed by the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

The center will be led by renowned pediatrician and public health and community leader Dr. Ben Danielson, a clinical professor of pediatrics at UW Medicine.

Named for the Yoruba and African American affirmation “asé,” pronounced “ah-SHAY” — loosely meaning “so shall it be” — the program will focus on bringing together people to address one of the most harmful facets of our destructive criminal legal system: youth incarceration.

As I have written before, youth incarceration does not make our communities safer. 

One 2013 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, after looking at 35,000 juvenile offenders over 10 years, found that “youth incarceration results in substantially lower high school completion rates and higher adult incarceration rates, including incarceration for violent crimes.”

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Consensus is growing that incarcerating youth is the wrong solution to address crime. According to a 2021 Sentencing Project report, the number of incarcerated youth nationwide dropped 50% over 10 years. Yet even with that change in the right direction, the racial disparities that have always been at the heart of our punishment system persist. The report said that Black youth are five times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers nationwide.

King County has a deadline and a commitment to end youth incarceration by 2025, and Danielson said it is as close to an “all hands on deck” moment as you can imagine. 

According to the King County’s Zero Youth Detention dashboard, the county already experienced a nearly 50% drop in youth detention since 2016 (for various reasons including declining crime rates, more youths being directed to diversion programs and less juvenile cases being prosecuted). But it will take a lot more work to get to zero.

In a conversation last week, Danielson said he hoped the AHSHAY program could build on the visionary work of longtime champions for system change such as Burien-based Choose 180 and other advocates and serve as a bridge to new stakeholders. 

“What I’m hoping to do is really stand beside the folks who have been really doing the hard work for a long time forever in this area,” Danielson said.

Bringing “uncommon partners” in a multitude of disciplines together to move the needle to zero is critical to the success of the work, Danielson said. He said it takes the work of prison abolitionists along with young people themselves, early learning specialists and people who understand how social systems and infrastructure create barriers for young people and families to bring about the ideas that create change.

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The need is dire because, as Danielson said: “Incarceration doesn’t decrease recidivism, it doesn’t seem to diminish the chances that a young person will become an older person who’s also involved in the carceral system, it doesn’t afford a young person a chance to get on track with their sense of opportunity and a path to their dreams and their own ideas. It doesn’t save any kind of resources; it’s actually highly expensive. And it is highly racist.” 

It’s appropriate that AHSHAY is housed within the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UW because at the root of incarceration is often trauma. A 2010 report by the Justice Policy Institute found that between 75% and 93% of youth entering the juvenile incarceration system had experienced some level of childhood trauma.

Taking a public health vs. punishment approach better meets the needs of the children caught in the legal system. But despite what some critics say, taking a public health approach doesn’t mean that victims of crime are ignored or forgotten. It’s about identifying and targeting the root of the problem and building the scaffolding around our children’s mental and physical well-being so that crime does not occur in the first place.

“We should never seek to devalue or invalidate harm that has occurred to people,” Danielson said. “I hope we could have a conversation about what it looks like to create a county, a society, a state, a nation, that is actually on an arc to decreasing the chances that the next person will be harmed in that way.”

It’s satisfying to look for short-term solutions to ending community traumas like gun violence, for example, but as Danielson said, we can’t afford to put a Band-Aid on the problem or try to lock it away and expect systemic change to occur. 

“We can’t throw away human lives,” Danielson said. “And I think we’re starting to realize that is a change that needs to happen for us. And part of not throwing away human lives anymore is seeing the restorative healing and opportunity possibilities in other people.”