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End the shackling of juveniles

A Times Editorial
Published October 3, 2006

The idea behind a separate juvenile court system is to provide young people a gentler form of justice as a way of acknowledging their immaturity and capacity for change. But in one respect, juveniles are treated far harsher than their adult counterparts. Regardless of the offense, juveniles automatically appear in court shackled in handcuffs, chains and leg irons, while adult defendants do not. This practice is unjustified, degrading and potentially damaging to justice. Bay area juvenile court judges should put an end to it.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger says that he tried unsuccessfully about two years ago to get the juvenile court judges in his jurisdiction to banish shackles. He plans to try again soon. Meanwhile, public defenders in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have petitioned the courts to end the practice, and it appears they are achieving some promising results. Three judges in Broward County have now signed orders ending shackling in their courtrooms. One of those judges said the practice is "a throwback to 18th century Europe."

Beyond the potential psychological damage of chaining young people, when a defendant is shackled while sitting in court, it gives the appearance of guilt. Even though juvenile trials are presided over by a judge and not a jury, and a judge is supposed to put those kinds of visual clues aside, there is likely to be some impact.

The shackles used by the Department of Juvenile Justice are what you might expect to see on hardened criminals. The children have their ankles chained together and their cuffed wrists are attached to chains around their waist. The department says this kind of restraint is necessary for public safety. But that strains credulity, since adult defendants aren't forced to sit in court trussed like a Thanksgiving turkey.

There are many stakeholders within the juvenile justice system who could have ended this travesty a long time ago. The secretary of the Department of Juvenile Justice could have altered the department's standards on shackling. The Florida Supreme Court could have promulgated rules protecting the rights of juvenile defendants in the courtroom. Chief judges also could have barred shackling within their circuits, as could have individual judges.

This humiliating procedure needs to stop, and each of these agencies and officials should take the necessary steps sooner rather than later.

[Last modified October 3, 2006, 01:15:08]

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