Momentum builds to stop the automatic shackling of juveniles in court

In some juvenile court systems around the country, young people regularly appear at hearings in handcuffs, leg irons, or both. But 21 states – five this year alone – have reformed such shackling practices through statute, court action, or policy.

Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
A youth is shown in shackles in this illustration photo, in Stockton, Calif., 2002.

Skye Gosselin was 12 the first time court officers shackled her. She had been charged with disorderly conduct. At 14, she spent several hours handcuffed to another girl as she awaited her hearing, this time for skipping school, which violated her probation. Then she was taken into court with metal bands wrapped around both her wrists and ankles, said the now-16-year-old in testimony at a legislative hearing in Maine this spring.

“What I still think about today," she said, "is being in public view, weighed down by loud, metal shackles and the humiliation and shame I felt.... [A]ll eyes looked at me as if I were some crazed criminal or an animal.... The dehumanizing experience shaped not only how others saw me, but how I saw myself for many years.... [It] made me think of myself as a criminal.”

In some juvenile court systems around the country, young people regularly appear at hearings in handcuffs, leg irons, or both – regardless of age or circumstance. Children as young as 9 have been shackled, as have children who have been abused by their parents, defense lawyers say.

It’s difficult to quantify, but one rough estimate is that up to 100,000 youths are shackled each year, says David Shapiro, manager of the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling for the National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington.

For more than a decade, a growing cadre of advocates for juvenile justice reform has been arguing against routine shackling of juveniles. All kinds of physical restraints meant to impede movement or control behavior are included in reformers' use of the word shackle. They say the automatic use of restraints is not in line with the rehabilitative purpose of juvenile court, limits youths’ ability to participate in their defense, tends to hurt and humiliate them, and, in some cases, traumatizes them.

Momentum has been building in favor of reform, prompting a flurry of state laws, court rulings, policy initiatives, and a federal legislative proposal.

Law enforcement officers who oversee security at juvenile courts sometimes push back, saying the practice is necessary for safety and the prevention of escapes.

In Jefferson County, Ky., juveniles being brought from detention into the courtroom are routinely handcuffed in transit and during their hearing, with their hands in front so they can handle documents. “We do that with all prisoners.... If you are handcuffing them properly, which we train our people to do, it doesn’t hurt them.... It protects them as well as the people who are guarding them and others,” says Lt. Col. Carl Yates, a spokesman for the county sheriff’s office.

Reform proponents say there are better ways to ensure safety. “The potential harm associated with shackling far outweighs safety concerns in the vast majority of cases – and in the rare instances restraints might be necessary – the decision to use them should be made by the judge,” said Shawn Marsh, who oversees juvenile law issues for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in a statement Monday. The council, based in Reno, Nev., is the latest of more than half a dozen professional associations to offer policy statements supporting reform.

The attention to shackling figures into several ongoing national conversations. One is about how to create a better relationship between law enforcement and the community. The other centers on adolescents and the best way to get them back on a path to success if they’ve strayed into harmful or, in some cases, simply unproductive behavior.

Research has found that many youths caught up in the juvenile justice system are facing such struggles as abuse, addiction, and mental health challenges. An estimated 75 to 90 percent of them have experienced some form of trauma before their court involvement.

Reformers have been going after a host of juvenile justice practices that stem from a tough-on-crime era in the 1980s and ’90s – when youths were feared to be turning into “superpredators,” a prediction that never materialized. Shifts are taking place, for instance, in solitary confinement, life sentences without parole, and what they see as excessive incarceration.

So far, 21 states have reformed shackling practices through statute, court action, or policy. In this year alone, those joining the reform bandwagon include Connecticut, Indiana, Nebraska, Nevada, Utah, and the District of Columbia. At the national level, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Texas has introduced a bill that would ban the shackling of youths during federal court appearances unless there are legitimate security concerns.

It makes little sense that adult courts typically have to follow guidelines to determine if shackling is really needed, but juvenile courts in many states don’t, says Shakyra Diaz, policy manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

In some Ohio counties, she says, “you can have an adult in court on very serious charges and not restrained, and a youth on a nonviolent charge restrained.”

The US Supreme Court has ruled that routine shackling of adults in court is unconstitutional because it can undermine the presumption of innocence. Juveniles typically appear before judges, not juries, but reform advocates say even judges may be biased by seeing a juvenile shackled.

Routine shackling “was like the juvenile court’s little secret,” Ms. Diaz says. She recalls the first time she witnessed a teenager shackled in court, in 2012: “I remember looking around and wondering if someone was going to ... ask for [the restraints] to be removed ... but it seemed like no one saw the shackles or saw this girl wearing them.” Sometimes things become so routine, she says, “we forget the humanity of others.”

In Hamilton County, Ohio, a 14-year-old girl who had been trafficked had her hands restrained at her waist with a belly chain when she came before a judge on a nonviolent drug charge, prompting a lawsuit by the ACLU of Ohio. Last year, the ACLU withdrew the lawsuit to focus on pushing for a statewide policy that presumes shackles are needed only in exceptional cases – a policy that has not yet come to pass, Diaz says.

The policy resolution from the judges’ council and another one recently from the American Bar Association help send a clear message throughout the country that “the goal should be trauma-informed care,” Diaz adds.

In Kentucky's Jefferson County, young children are typically released to their parents or handled through the child welfare system, not detained and handcuffed for court, Lieutenant Colonel Yates says. It's decided case by case whether a detained youth needs to be shackled, which in his definition means the use of ankle restraints. For those decisions, law enforcement officials consider whether a youth has been violent or may pose a flight risk.

“We’re not unfeeling. We do look at juveniles much differently than adult prisoners,” he says. But he notes that they’re also not psychologists. “The judge has the final word,” he says, on whether a juvenile should be restrained in court, and some judges do ask for handcuffs to be removed.

For advocates who want broader changes, he suggests, “they have to have all the people involved in the discussion.... It can’t just be lumped on the law enforcement officers for us to make the decision."

The resolution by the judges’ council agrees, urging judges to convene groups of all stakeholders to find ways to ensure safety but to use restraints only when someone can demonstrate that an individual youth poses a risk.

Some locations have a long enough track record of only shackling youths when absolutely necessary that they can offer their experience as reassurance to other local and state leaders considering the issue.

The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office reported in 2011 that in the five years since the policy had shifted away from automatic shackling, 20,000 youths had appeared in court without a single escape or incident of serious harm. Florida adopted a statewide court rule against indiscriminate shackling in 2009.

Reformers say they’ve reached a point of critical mass, with so many mental health, medical, and legal organizations saying kids, and society, will be better off if court officers lock up their shackles most of the time.

Researchers have found, for instance, that when kids perceive the legal system to be fair to them, their rates of self-reported delinquency are lower.

“In the next few years, we’re going to see a complete shift in this country in the way they are treating juveniles in the courtrooms,” Mr. Shapiro says.

For her part, Skye has shown resilience. She told Maine lawmakers that thanks to support by adults like her grandmother, she knows now that “I don't need to be defined by my shackling experience.... [W]hat I have done in the past is not who I am but simply things I did. Since that time I have gotten my license and I have plans to go to college and eventually become a dentist.”

Maine lawmakers did pass a reform bill with bipartisan support, but the governor vetoed it and many other bills because of an unrelated dispute with the Legislature over the budget.

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