Shackling Juveniles in Transportation: Hobbling Fairness

08/25/2015 07:34 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2016

They shuffle down the street, heads down, shoulders hunched, unable to take a full step because of the chains between their ankles. Three uniformed, armed guards hover over the ragged line. This is not a scene depicting a 1930's prison chain gang. It is a bright sunny day in downtown Martinez, California, and the prisoners are children being taken to their juvenile court hearing.

Although California prohibits routine shackling of children in juvenile facilities and in court proceedings, current law and practice often fail to address what happens to children as they are moved between those settings. In Contra Costa County, as in many other jurisdictions, every child transported to the Martinez courthouse for a hearing is transported in shackles. That includes metal handcuffs, belly belts attaching to the cuffs to prevent movement of the hands and ankle chains that hobble normal movement. The youth are paraded down a public street, up the steps of the courthouse, down a public hallway and into court. Once in the courtroom, they are forced to sit in shackles until their case is called by the judge and their handcuffs -- but not their belly belts or leg chains -- are removed. When the hearing is finished, they are handcuffed again and must make their way across the same public route to the van that will return them to the county detention center.

This scene might reasonably suggest that these children are dangerous, assaultive or pose an imminent risk of escape, the reality is otherwise. County data reveals substantial numbers of youth being held pending their court hearings for alleged offenses that include misdemeanor vandalism, petty theft and disturbing the peace. In 2014, only 17 percent of youth held before adjudication were detained for violent offenses, while 37.5 percent were detained for status offenses and 19.5 percent were detained for alleged misdemeanors. Many of the youth subjected to shackling in transportation will be placed in non-secure facilities or returned to the community -- sometimes the same day they are transported to court in shackles.

Shackling is humiliating. Being seen in shackles in public by peers, family and strangers causes profound feelings of shame for young people. This is especially so for the many youth in juvenile justice who have already experienced physical and psychological abuse in their lives. It may exacerbate mental health problems for youth who are depressed or have experienced trauma. It sends all the wrong messages: We think you are a criminal. We think you cannot control yourself. We think you need to be treated like a vicious animal.

Indiscriminate shackling runs counter to the most basic principles of juvenile justice. The juvenile system exists to provide individualized services based on the particular needs of the child. Treating all youth as though they are Hannibal Lector is a poor way to accomplish that goal. Certainly, the feelings of shame and humiliation caused by shackling may interfere with young people's willingness and ability to participate in their case.

Routine shackling takes away every scintilla of control a young person has over his or her body. It is completely out of step with the research on what works in juvenile rehabilitation. First, we know that treating youth like criminals may actually cause them to veer toward criminality. And second, we know that the best way to achieve good results with teenagers is to make sure they have supportive relationships with key adults, and that they have the opportunities to exercise judgment and self-control. A relationship in which armed adults automatically shackle you is unlikely to produce the kind of support needed for healthy development.

When asked about the use of routine shackling, officials often respond that it is for safety -- that it is too hard for them to figure out who needs to be restrained so they shackle everyone. But just as it would be more convenient for the police if they could go through everyone's pockets whenever they wanted -- because some people may have drugs or weapons -- intrusions on personal liberty must be limited to situations in which there is specific reason to believe the particular evil will occur. In fact, one of the leading cases on shackling in the courtroom observed that neither inconvenience, nor lack of security personnel, nor inadequacy of court facilities may be used to justify indiscriminate shackling.

Young people are acutely aware of the issue of fairness. It is one of the essential elements in any system seeking to promote healthy adolescent development. As our society struggles with fairness in criminal justice, we need to pay closer attention to one-size-fits-all solutions to all kinds of things. If we want youth to grow up with any respect for the rule of law, routine shackling in transportation must go.