The Un-Shackling of Maryland’s Youth
July 7, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Take a look inside any juvenile court across America and you will see kids on the chain. They are handcuffed, shackled in leg irons, and even chained to one another as they are paraded in and out of the courtroom. In a system that is supposed to rehabilitate and help our kids, it’s difficult to overcome the trauma and stigma of being treated like a criminal, especially in a system that is supposed to be free of the taint of criminality.
Analyzing the problems inherent with such practices, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held juveniles should not be shackled while appearing at juvenile court hearings, unless and until there has been a finding on the record that the juvenile poses a security concern or threat that would disrupt those particular proceedings or involve danger to the juvenile or others. In short, no more shackles for Maryland kids unless they pose a security threat.
In the Matter of D.M., a Maryland juvenile accused of theft of a cell phone, D.M. was handcuffed and shackled throughout each of his juvenile hearings, including his adjudication hearing, where he was identified by the eye-witness as the person involved in delinquent conduct. At each step of the way, his attorney objected to the handcuffs and shackles, stating his client posed no threat and the restraints would (1) prejudice his client and taint the in-court identification, and (2) prohibit D.M. from meaningful participation in his defense. Additionally, his attorney pointed out the trauma, stigma, and psychological harm that juveniles can suffer from this experience.
While the lower court made no finding as to any threat posed by D.M., the court officer noted D.M. had a problem “giving people the finger” though not in the courtroom. Despite D.M.’s assurances to respect the courtroom and not utilize his middle finger, he remained cuffed and shackled. Because there was no prohibition against the restraint, the lower court followed her 20-year practice of keeping the child handcuffed and shackled.
Despite finding no error on appeal, the Court found no reason to continue the practice and created a rule against unnecessary shackling, noting recent public concern and a policy resolution to prohibit the practice. The Court believed the resolution was aspirational but, frankly, lacked teeth and instead created the new rule.
This issue has been debated for years in Maryland and beyond, as youth advocates have argued that indiscriminate shackling further traumatizes an already vulnerable population. As reported in The Baltimore Sun:
The ruling affirms a nonbinding resolution adopted by the Maryland Court of Appeals last fall that has been implemented inconsistently. It also puts Maryland on a growing list of states that have laws or court rulings denouncing the practice as harmful to children and their due process.
“This is huge,” said Christina Gilbert who heads a national campaign against juvenile shackling by the National Juvenile Defender Center, an advocacy group in Washington.
For more than a year, the campaign has tracked states’ actions on juvenile shackling. Half the states and the District of Columbia have rejected indiscriminate shackling of juveniles.
The issue is huge, despite it not being a “win” for D.M. personally. Children are supposed to be removed from criminal processes through the use of juvenile courts. They are not arrested, but rather taken into custody. They are not convicted, but rather adjudicated. The system is not criminal and punishment-oriented, but rather rehabilitative. The idea is to remove the taint of criminalization and focus on rehabilitative efforts. Criminalization is instead punitive; yet, courts continue to criminalize our youth.
Being brought before the court in shackles creates quite the impression, and not in a good way. Children begin to believe they are presumed guilty. Their very freedom to participate is restrained. They start to immediately distrust the system and view it as unfair. How is the child supposed to respect a process that shows him no dignity? Children, while physically restrained, become psychologically restrained. But, what about that important distinction between juvenile and criminal proceedings?
In the Court’s opinion, Justice Sharer aptly points out:
A distinction exists between delinquency proceedings involving juvenile offenders and criminal proceedings involving adults in the criminal justice arena, even though the conduct underlying a delinquent act and a crime may be the same. The dispositions of the juvenile court are not to be considered as punishment for a crime nor are adjudications of delinquency ‘convictions’, as that word is generally applied with respect to criminal proceedings. Juvenile proceedings aspire to the idealistic prospect of an intimate, informal protective proceeding and retain their special and informal nature. [Internal citations omitted.]
So, juvenile dispositions are not to be considered punishment for a crime and the proceedings themselves are to be intimate, informal and protective of the child. Yet, the child is paraded into the proceeding in handcuffs and leg-irons. Not really the way to remove the criminality.
Yes, sometimes in rare circumstances, there will be a need to restrain a child who may be unable or unwilling to control himself. But that is certainly not the norm. Most children appearing before juvenile courts are afraid of the process, afraid of the consequences, and afraid of being locked up and thrown away. But given the opportunity, most kids just need a fighting chance, a chance to show dignity and respect for others because it was shown to them. After all, the overriding goal of Maryland’s juvenile statutory scheme is to rehabilitate and treat delinquent juveniles so that they become useful and productive members of society. Isn’t that what we want?