Much attention has been paid recently to the use of safety restraints on juvenile offenders.
Those who oppose the use of these restraints ignore very real security issues, and they overlook the wide range of successful rehabilitation programs available to juveniles in this city through the court’s Social Services Division and elsewhere.
Safety is the court’s top priority.
I am chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. My top priority is the safety of the more than 10,000 people who walk through the front door of the courthouse each day: court staff, judicial officers, jurors, witnesses, parties to cases and the more than 60 youth who appear in our juvenile courts each day.
Judges in D.C. Superior Court’s Family Court work closely with the U.S. Marshals Service to ensure the safety of those in the courtroom because we have had incidents of restrained and unrestrained juveniles becoming aggressive in the courtroom and attempting to escape from the building.
This year, a respondent known to be volatile appeared at a hearing with a broken hand from having punched a wall at a city facility. The juvenile entered the courtroom with safety restraints on his hands and legs. Defense counsel requested that the hand restraints be removed so that the juvenile, who is hearing-impaired, could sign more easily. The judge denied the request, based on the juvenile’s propensity for violence. However, halfway through the hearing, staff removed some of the restraints. Soon thereafter, the juvenile went on a violent rampage, bucking and swinging his arms, trying to get to the judge. It took police and marshals quite a while to get the situation under control and contain him. In the process, the juvenile injured several people. This was an emotionally upsetting and chaotic experience for all who were present.
One colleague has had two escape incidents, both involving juveniles.
In another incident, an individual in custody punched an attorney while in the courtroom.
These incidents put the lives of youth, their parents and the court staff in harm’s way. The most dangerous situation during my time as chief judge occurred after court hours, when a fully restrained juvenile walked away from his escorts and attempted to open a judge’s chambers, but the door was locked. He walked through the back entrance to a courtroom and got to the front door of the courthouse. There a startled security officer pulled her gun, which accidentally discharged, causing a woman nearby to faint. Deputy marshals apprehended the juvenile as he ran penguin-style down Indiana Avenue NW. Most of this incident was captured on videotape.
Juveniles’ trial rights are not being violated, but due process issues will arise if advocates have their way.
In adult cases, juries can be influenced merely by viewing a defendant in restraints. Juvenile proceedings are not decided by a jury but by a judge. Moreover, in Superior Court, it is routine for a judge to ask the marshals to remove hand restraints so that juveniles can assist their attorneys.
Suggesting that judges make determinations on restraints at each hearing is unreasonable because of the volume of cases each day, and it raises due process concerns. A juvenile’s underlying charges are most definitely not indicative of his or her behavior in the courtroom. The judge would be required to receive information about his or her behavior in the cellblock and review other factors irrelevant to the charges at hand.
Consider the hypothetical example of a judge presiding over a case in which a juvenile was charged with assault and threatening bodily harm. The judge speaks to the deputy marshal who was watching the juvenile in the cellblock to determine whether to remove restraints. The judge learns that, for the past hour, the juvenile had been threatening to hurt others. With that knowledge the judge could certainly make a determination on restraints, but defense counsel could argue that the juvenile’s case was prejudiced and that his constitutional right to a fair trial was violated. Defense counsel would ask the judge to recuse herself from the case.
City officials, criminal justice partners and advocates should focus on strengthening our rehabilitation programs. The use of restraints may appear distasteful, but they do not inhibit a juvenile’s rehabilitation. Restraints lessen the chance that a juvenile will escape or commit additional crimes.
The court has many programs that are reducing juvenile delinquency and recidivism. We have opened three Balance and Restorative Justice Drop-In Centers for youth that provide an alternative to detention. And we are in the community — in three of the four quadrants of the city — working with youth and their families. These centers have been so successful that we hope to open a fourth soon. The court has implemented programs such as the juvenile behavioral health diversion program for those with mental health and substance abuse issues, and it operates the city’s only youth sex offender program. These programs can be tailored to support specific rehabilitation needs. The court also developed the Leaders of Today in Solidarity Unit, which provides early intervention and continuity in services to enhance adolescent females’ chances of successfully transitioning into adulthood through restorative justice.
I encourage everyone with a position on this issue to remember that the focus should be on the juveniles. And they are the ones who benefit most from the use of safety restraints. Juvenile behavior is often unpredictable. Safety restraints keep them and others safe.
Lee F. Satterfield is chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and former presiding judge of the Family Court. Read a longer version of this piece here.