She had just turned 13 when she ran away from home and got into a scuffle with the police officer who found her.
Charged with assault, the teen was housed in a youth center operated by the District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. When it was time for her first appearance in D.C. Superior Court, a DYRS agent instructed the teen to kneel on a chair and placed iron shackles, which were connected to a metal belt around her waist, onto her ankles and wrists. She waddled into the courtroom.
“I felt like a dog on a leash. Like an animal,” the teen, now 16, recalled. Embarrassed and frightened, she remembered seeing her mother in the courtroom and several adults she did not know. She started to cry, but couldn’t wipe her tears because the restraints kept her from raising her arms to her face. Her attorney, Penelope Spain, asked that the shackles be removed for the hour-long proceeding, but the judge denied the request.
The girl’s case and others like it have led advocates and defense attorneys to call on the court to end its practice of routinely shackling incarcerated youths during court proceedings — and to instead use the restraints only in instances where a juvenile is deemed to be a risk.
While some say the restraints keep defendants and observers safe in situations that can become tense, opponents argue shackles are demeaning and unnecessary in a system aimed more at rehabilitation than punishment. They note that adult defendants in the same courthouse, even those who have been convicted of violent crimes, can have their restraints removed in court.
The practice in D.C. Superior Court differs from other courts in the Washington metropolitan area. Court and police officials in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax counties, as well as Alexandria, said the decision about whether to shackle a juvenile defendant in court is made on a case-by-case basis. In Fairfax and Montgomery counties, for example, shackles are removed from the juveniles once they enter the courtroom, officials said.
With backing from the National Juvenile Defender Center, D.C. Lawyers for Youth and the D.C. Public Defender Service, D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) is championing proposed legislation that would eliminate universal shackling of juvenile defendants and instead seek to have judges make a determination based on each youth’s history and behavior since their arrest. Grosso said he hoped the bill would go to a vote by the end of the year.
“They have been shackling kids who have no violent past. It’s a horrible thing. A lot of these kids are nonviolent offenders. We don’t want to send them down the wrong path by shackling somebody who doesn’t need to be shackled,” Grosso said.
The District is unusual in that it is the only place in the country where U. S. marshals escort juvenile defendants. In most places, youth rehabilitation services, sheriffs or police transport and oversee young defendants.
David Neumann, a spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service, said the service’s policy requires all prisoners, regardless of age, to be in restraints when in the courtroom. An exception is made during jury trials, he said, but youths are tried before judges. Neumann said if a judge orders the restraints on a juvenile be removed, the marshal must confer with a supervisor “to ensure that alternative security measures are in place.”
One U.S. marshal, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not have authorization from the service, said even youth held for nonviolent crimes can become volatile without warning. Restraints, he said, protect the defendants and those around them.
In a 2012 study, Suffolk University Law School professor Kim M. McLaurin found that 36 states allowed for indiscriminate shackling of juveniles in court. But at least 11 states, including North Carolina, Florida and New York, had banned the practice, she said.
McLaurin said unnecessary shackling sends the wrong message. “Juvenile court is supposed to be about rehabilitation,” she said. “You don’t achieve that by putting children in handcuffs.”
D.C. Court officials said in a prepared statement that judges can order removal of a youth’s restraints: “When appropriate, a judge can require a juvenile’s hands to be unshackled. At the time of this request, the judge will work in conjunction with the U.S. Marshals, who are charged with protecting juvenile courtrooms, to ensure the safety of the juvenile in custody, the judge, court staff, and spectators,” court spokeswoman Anita Jarman wrote.
But some defense attorneys argue juveniles should not be shackled in court unless a specific reason is given. Alec Karakatsanis, a defense attorney and co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law, a nonprofit civil rights law firm, said the handcuffs distract juvenile defendants from concentrating on their case and prevent them from writing notes to their attorney.
On three recent Mondays, a Washington Post reporter was permitted to watch juvenile court. About two dozen teens appeared on charges that included shoplifting, assault and carrying a weapon. The Post generally does not identify juveniles charged in crimes.
Several D.C. public defenders asked that their clients be released from the shackles during the proceedings. Each time, prosecutors did not object to the request and the judges deferred to the marshals who then denied the request.
In a case involving a 17-year-old charged with carrying a firearm, Magistrate Judge Julie Breslow told the juvenile he could sit at the table, which she said would help relieve the pain to his wrists. “I appreciate your request. I understand the policy of the U.S. marshals is to have them shackled. It’s not a policy I get to make a decision on,” Breslow said in court.
In another case, Magistrate Judge Tara J. Fentress asked a DYRS representative who was standing next to a 14-year-old charged with assault whether the shackles should be removed, as the teen’s attorney requested. The DYRS employee responded: “It’s the policy that all defendants be shackled.” Fentress denied the request.
David Shapiro of the National Juvenile Defender Center said that having juveniles — many of whom are only charged with a crime and not yet convicted — shuffled into the courtroom shackled makes them feel as if “they are less than human.”
“We’re not asking to take out all shackles completely. But if you’re going to put kids in chains, there should be a justification for it,” he said.
The teen charged with assaulting the police officer had several hearings, during which she was shackled, her attorney said. She eventually admitted responsibility for her crime and was committed to a youth facility for a time. Today, she’s living with her mother and finishing high school.
She said she still remembers the feeling of the restraints. “It’s just not fair,” she said.
D.C. Public Defender Andrew Crespo remembers a 2011 case where his client, who was 8 at the time, was led into the courtroom in 2-pound restraints. The boy, who weighed about 60 pounds, sat in a chair with his feet dangling. Prosecutors said the boy allegedly touched a little girl inappropriately at his birthday party hours earlier and he was arrested for sexual assault. Before the hearing, Crespo said, his client kept whispering: “My mommy said I can still have my birthday cake. I can still have my cake, right?” Crespo recalled. The charges were later dropped.