CHANCES ARE that when someone uses the phrase “safety restraints,” the image that comes to mind is not two-pound irons that hobble a person’s ankles and bind the wrists to the waist. So it was jarring to see the shackles that are used on juvenile offenders in D.C. courts described that way in a recent defense of the practice. No matter what vernacular is employed, the time has come for other alternatives to the handcuffs, leg irons and waist chains routinely used on incarcerated youth in the District.
D.C. Superior Court is the scene of an increasingly passionate debate over the use of shackles on juvenile offenders, who are restrained without regard to their age, offense or assessment of risk. Defense attorneys and advocates want the court to end the blanket use of shackles in favor of a system that makes an individual determination of risk. They argue that the restraints are demeaning, unnecessary and contrary to the system of juvenile justice, in which the aim is rehabilitation, not punishment. They also note that adult defendants are rarely shackled. So indiscriminate is the restraints’ use on youth that even those young offenders who are having their charges dismissed are shackled for their court appearance.
Pushing back against change is the U.S. Marshals Service, which provides security for the court, and Lee F. Satterfield, chief judge of the court. In a commentary this month for The Post, Judge Satterfield argued that juvenile behavior is often unpredictable and that the use of safety restraints, as he called them, not only ensures the safety of everyone in the courthouse but also is in the best interest of juveniles.
We have a lot of respect for Judge Satterfield and don’t envy him the job of managing a busy, urban courthouse. However, other jurisdictions have managed to cut back on the use of these demeaning shackles without dire consequences. The Post’s Keith L. Alexander reported that the decision to shackle a defendant is made on a case-by-case example in Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax counties as well as in Alexandria. Much cited is the success of Miami-Dade County, where more than 20,000 youth appeared in court without restraints between 2006 and 2011 without incident.
The District’s incoming attorney general, Karl Racine, campaigned against the use of shackles, and there is interest on the D.C. Council, spearheaded by council member David Grosso (I-At Large), to reform the policy. We hope they succeed. Surely there is a way to ensure public safety without the unnecessary dehumanization of the very people the court is supposed to be helping.
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