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Shackling Juveniles in the Courtroom

Pediatricians and psychologists say unnecessary restraints can traumatize kids and encourage worse behavior.
(Photo: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr)

(Photo: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr)

Friday marks the 48th anniversary of In re Gault, a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1967 that juveniles had the right to all the same protections under the law that adult offenders did, like being notified of the charges against them, and being assigned their own attorneys. In the years since, however, juvenile justice has occasionally fallen behind the adult system, and achieved reforms at a slower pace.

Shackling in the courtroom is one such example. The Supreme Court ruled in 2005 that to shackle adult defendants during the sentencing portion of their trials would be to deny them due process, unless there was a specific reason for restraints. The Court’s majority opinion held that the shackles created a prejudicial visual image for the judge and jury—suggesting that the defendant was a dangerous, and even unpredictable, criminal—which could potentially sway them to mete out harsher punishments.

The defendant in that Supreme Court case, Carman Deck, was an adult who had been convicted of robbing and then murdering an elderly couple. If leg-braces weren’t appropriate for him, are they a good idea for children? The image of children in chains is jarring. Consider this Associated Press news photo from 2007 of a 10-year-old standing between his mother and his lawyer in a courtroom in Florida, dressed in a tiny white jumpsuit, orange sneakers, a waist restraint, and ankle cuffs.

"Youth in chains or some other sort of restraint for lengthy periods of time may see themselves as individuals who are considered dangerous and adopt this means of thinking."

This is just the kind of scenario that many criminal justice and child advocates, like the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Bar Association, among others, are working to prevent. They seem to be making progress. The National Juvenile Defender Center reports that, just since the beginning of the year, policy changes have taken effect in Washington, D.C., Alaska, Utah, Nebraska, and Indiana—which will align them with the 15 other states that do not shackle kids in court unless there is a clear reason to. And so far in 2015, new legislation has been introduced in 13 additional states.

In policy briefs, these groups argue against indiscriminately shackling juveniles in court, not only because of the effect that they have on the outcomes of the defendants’ cases, but also because of the potentially damaging effects on the defendants themselves. Restraining some children, in some ways, may be appropriate, they concede; but they say that courts should consider each case individually.

Christine James-Brown, president and CEO of the Child Welfare League of America, says that her group has come out against the shackling of juveniles because of the intense embarrassment and shame that it can cause a child. It’s a kind of embarrassment so intense that it can rightly be categorized as cruelty, she says—especially when the circumstances that often lead children to come into contact with the law are taken into account.

“I think we fail to understand that whether [children] are in the juvenile justice system, or in the child welfare system, nine times out of 10, these are children who have experienced all kinds of trauma within their families, within their communities, within their schools—so we certainly don’t want to bring another layer of trauma to them,” James-Brown says. “There are negative impacts that will follow the child into adulthood.”

These negative impacts go beyond embarrassment, as well. Doctors and psychologists say it could actually encourage more criminal behavior in adolescents, whose personalities and conceptions of themselves are still actively developing.

In an affidavit collected by the NJDC, John Chapman, a clinical child psychologist who has worked in Connecticut’s juvenile justice system, writes, “Youth in chains or some other sort of restraint for lengthy periods of time may see themselves as individuals who are considered dangerous and adopt this means of thinking.”

Pediatrician Gwen Wurm, who has worked with children in the foster care system, points out that similar restraints, in the home, would constitute child abuse. “In addition to being harmful to the child, the re-experiencing of the trauma may cause behavioral problems, both in the courtroom and later,” Wurm writes. “The effort to control the child through shackling may lead to far more problematic behaviors.”

Shackling practices still differ among states and jurisdictions, just as child welfare policies do. But James-Brown says she is hopeful that the state-by-state reform will continue, as methods are gradually informed by research that has come out in recent years about the long-lasting impact of child trauma, and about how the juvenile justice system can either exacerbate, or alleviate, that trauma.

“At the end of the day, what we have to be about, is making sure children are safe, that they have a permanent connection with a caring adult,” she says, “and that they are better as a result of being in contact with these different systems.”

True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.