Two state legislators introduced bills last week that look to amend the current laws about youth being shackled in juvenile court.
Representative Toni Walker of the 93rd district, which covers New Haven, and Representative Bruce Morris of the 140th district each proposed bills that would codify rules about juvenile shackling into the state’s law about juvenile matters. The juvenile matters law currently does not contain a statute regarding whether or not youths enter the court in shackles. Courts instead operate according to a precedent that results in most juveniles entering courts in shackles.
Morris proposed in his bill that a child should enter court without shackles unless the court decides that the behavior of the youth is dangerous to the public. Meanwhile, Walker’s bill proposed codifying protocols for the use of restraints for children in court.
“You’re treating [the youths] as though you think that they’re somehow at risk of running away and that they’re unmanageable,” Morris said. “However for the mass majority of our children who do not pose that risk […] it’s unnecessary.”
Morris stressed that a main issue with youth shackling, which includes applying handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains, is that it implies that the defendant is guilty. In adult trials, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 2005 that shackling a defendant in front of the jury hinders the jury’s ability to make a fair decision. Juvenile court operates without a jury, and only the judge presides over the case.
“The fact that they’re coming in that way says that they aren’t innocent,” Morris said.
Although Morris’s bill seeks to limit the use of shackles, Walker’s bill is less prescriptive, only seeking to “establish protocols for the use of shackles or other methods of restraint on a child who appears in Juvenile Court.” Walker could not be reached for comment Monday.
Julian Ford, the director of the University of Connecticut’s Child Trauma Clinic, said in an email that many of the youths who appear in court come from abusive families or violent communities. These youths, he said, are at risk for post-traumatic stress reactions. Ford added that shackling can perpetuate feelings of traumatic victimization.
“Shackles represent society’s view that some youth in juvenile court are dangerous and unable to be responsible members of the community,” said Ford. “This creates a sense of stigma that can reinforce troubled youths’ sense of being outcasts and out of control, which pushes them further into marginalized peer groups and lifestyles.”
Morris said juvenile justice should focus on rehabilitation rather than punishment. The current policy of shackling does not help correct misbehavior, he said. He pointed out that children as young as 11 and 12 can be shackled in court for non-violent crimes.
Currently 11 states have laws that limit or prohibit juvenile shackling.