Advocates challenge court practice of shackling juveniles

by Amy Kingsley

A lawyer representing a minor in Guilford County filed a motion on Feb. 5 challenging the practice of indiscriminately shackling juveniles in court.

Keith Howard, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina, filed the motion on behalf of a 14-year-old Guilford County girl who was traumatized when she was handcuffed for a court appearance, he added. The girl, who faced two counts of larceny, was sexually abused for three years starting when she was 8 years old, Howard said. Her abuser used handcuffs and the shackling she experienced in court made her flash back to the abuse and caused her to cry in court.

Juveniles, even those facing minor charges, are routinely shackled in North Carolina courts, said Eric Zogry, the state juvenile defender. According to North Carolina statute, adult defendants are only shackled when a judge decides they are dangerous or a flight risk.

“The real issue is that the shackling is indiscriminate,” Zogry said.

A child facing minor, non-violent charges is shackled the same as a defendant who might have committed an assault or murder, Zogry said. Juveniles are also restrained regardless of gender, size or criminal history.

In his motion, Howard cited a number of studies that show children are psychologically harmed by the practice of shackling them in court. Dr. Donald Rosenblitt, a child and adult psychoanalyst, said shackling juveniles in court could hinder their rehabilitation.

“Shackling… in my opinion, is likely to increase the possibility of future misconduct and criminality for this particular population of children,” the motion quoted Rosenblitt as saying.

The motion cited evidence from several other experts, all of whom testified that shackling juvenile defendants can cause serious psychological damage.

Joseph Turner, the chief district judge in Guilford County, said children in custody arrive in his courtroom in restraints. Juveniles need restraints more than adults because they are more apt to run or act out in court, he said.

“The fact of the matter is that we call them juveniles because they are not mature people,” Turner said. “They are much more impulsive than adults.”

Both Howard and Zogry said they did not know how the practice of shackling children in court started. Dick Ellis, a public information officer from the administrative offices of the courts, said it is likely that because the children are brought in chained, judges and attorneys just do not bother removing them for hearings.

“It is probably not on purpose,” Ellis said. “They just bring them in in shackles and sit them down.”

Howard works with Advocates for Children’s Services, a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina that provides free legal representation for children in need of mental health services. His is a patient at John Umstead Hospital, a state psychiatric facility in Butner.

The practice of shackling children in court is not limited to North Carolina, Zogry said. Public defenders in Miami have had some success in their campaign against shackling in Florida. The Miami Dade County Commission is urging courts to rethink the practice. It has become a hot-button topic in political circles, and newly elected Florida Gov. Charlie Crist stated his opposition to the practice last December.

“It is harmful in any number of ways,” Zogry said. “It clearly has a psychological impact. We have this system that says kids have the ability to be treated and reformed, yet we put them in shackles when they are in court. There’s this mixed message going on with that.”

In addition to harming the child’s self esteem, Zogry said he thinks chains and handcuffs affect how judges view juvenile defendants.

“It has to have an impact when you’re having a trial and a kid is in chains,” he said.

Zogry and Howard said judges should be able to determine if a juvenile is dangerous and, if they are, should be able to shackle them the same as they would an adult.

“What we’re asking in the motion is not something that’s unreasonable,” Howard said. “We want the same system for children that adults have.”

Seeing children as small as 80 pounds led into court in chains is disconcerting, Zogry said. He has worked with juvenile delinquents for almost eight years.

“This image of children and adolescents as a detrimental force that is harmful to society has been way overblown,” Zogry said. “This whole notion of the juvenile super-predator just really hasn’t panned out.”

Turner said he would consider requests to unshackle juveniles in his courtroom and said he plans to discuss the motion with the other Guilford County district court judges. In this particular case, Turner said he is sympathetic to her lawyers’ request.

“The plight of this little girl who is the subject of this motion sounds terrible,” he said. “No one wants the system designed to help her, hurt her.”

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