This UW pediatrician has helped young people for 30 years. Now, he’s on a mission to end youth incarceration
King County Executive Dow Constantine has vowed to end the practice of youth incarceration by 2025, and now there is an effort to end youth incarceration across the state.
The University of Washington School of Medicine is developing a new center with this mission in mind. dr. Ben Danielson is clinical professor of pediatrics at UW Medicine and director of Allies in Healthier Systems for Health & Abundance in Youth (AHSHAY). He told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about his mission to end youth incarceration from his perspective as a pediatrician.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
dr. Ben Danielson: I think it gets to the heart of why people like me get into pediatrics, and the essence of what it really means to be healthy, and to have the opportunity to experience health in this state. We do things that are harmful to young people. We’ve been doing them for a long time in the knowledge that they’re harmful. I think it’s time we had the will and the energy to stop doing those things that harm the lives of young people across the state — especially young people of color.
Kim Malcolm: You said that the science is unequivocal when it comes to juvenile incarceration. What does it tell us?
It tells us that incarceration of juveniles does not reduce the likelihood that a juvenile will end up in prison later as an adult. It tells us that incarceration of young people does not provide an opportunity for young people to get back on paths that would orient them towards the success and dreams they have for themselves. It tells us that the resources spent on the incarceration of young people are not good investments for our society. There really isn’t any evidence that really substantiates in any way the value of juvenile incarceration.
You mentioned youth of color. Tell us about the impact on that community.
For Black and Brown youth, juvenile detention and incarceration have been devastating this country in major cities and communities for far too long. Disproportionately, black and brown youth are among the roles of youth incarceration. While efforts have been made to improve the experience of juvenile detention, those differences have only widened in recent years.
Specifically, what will your program do to achieve this goal of ending youth incarceration?
Director Constantine has pledged to end the incarceration of young people in King County by 2025. That means we have a lot of work to do as a province, and I mean us. I think this is an all hands on deck moment for us. Either we build the infrastructure and create the resources and do the work to make it happen, or we miss an important opportunity.
Part of that work involves working with the organization of the detention facility itself to dismantle that center and reuse the building and spaces with a lot of input from many people who have gained experience and a good understanding of what is needed. It tries to make connections between what is happening downstream in youth incarceration, and some of the root causes that really lead to it. Those could be things that are happening in your earliest school experiences – even before that – and every step of the way and in our communities.
For people who support the idea of ending youth incarceration for almost all crimes, some of them may draw the line when it comes to violent crimes that could involve murder or rape. What is your response to their argument that this is going too far?
This is the kind of conversation that I hope working in a center like this can be deepened and strengthened, and that we create spaces where this conversation can take place in a very truthful way. I hope we can create opportunities for those who have felt the heavy damage, and for those who are traumatized, to truly speak their truth and honestly share their hopes, fears and hopes. I am convinced that if we were to come to the question of the best way to reduce the chance of someone becoming a victim of a heinous crime in the future, an important part of that solution would be to end the incarceration of young people. That sounds counterintuitive, but it is definitely the most truthful interpretation of the information as we know it today.
You have approximately 30 years of experience working with children and promoting their health. When you look back on your career, does it make sense that you are here now?
It makes perfect sense to me. You spend your whole life in your field, and you realize how deep the damage of racism, humiliation and our contempt for a fellow human being can really reach. There are times when you have to move into a space that addresses more tangible things like racism, and there’s no better example of racism playing itself out and being in some ways a life sentence, especially for black people in this country, and then looking at our juvenile detention system.
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