Correction: A previous version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the March 6 decision rejecting an appeal brought by the public defender service over the use of shackles was handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The decision was handed down by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. This version has been updated.


(Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

“THE PRISONER is to be called to the bar by his name; and it is laid down in our ancient books, that, though under an indictment of the highest nature, he must be brought to the bar without irons, or any manner of shackles or bonds; unless there be evident danger of an escape . . . ” That view on shackling defendants, penned in the 18th century by England’s William Blackstone, has been reaffirmed by modern courts, including a U.S. Supreme Court’s finding that visible physical restraints, absent a trial court’s determination of necessity, violate the Constitution’s due process rights.

Such enlightenment apparently doesn’t extend to juvenile offenders in the District of Columbia. Standard practice, The Post’s Keith L. Alexander recently reported, is to shackle incarcerated youth, no matter their age or the nature of offense, when they are brought before judges in D.C. Superior Court. Both the U.S. Marshals Service and the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services employ the shackles. Judges can require the restraints be removed so that alternative security measures can be put in place, but lawyers who regularly represent juvenile offenders in the District told us this rarely — “like never,” said one attorney — occurs.

The result, according to the advocates pushing for a change, is a practice that is unnecessary, demeaning and counter to the juvenile justice system’s aim of rehabilitating, not punishing, youth.

We appreciate that juveniles can be unpredictable and that judges may not want to second-guess the decisions of security professionals. Resources are an issue: More marshals are required when defendants are unshackled.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to understand why the principles that limit the use of visible restraints for adult offenders appearing before juries — including that a defendant is presumed innocent until proved guilty and the possible interference of shackles with the right to counsel — shouldn’t extend to juveniles appearing before judges. Why not make an individualized determination of the need to place a child in shackles?

A number of states, including New York, California and Florida, have banned or discouraged the use of restraints on juveniles. “We find the indiscriminate shackling of children,” wrote the Florida Supreme Court, “ . . . repugnant, degrading, humiliating, and contrary to the stated primary purposes of the juvenile justice system and to the principles of therapeutic justice . . .”

In a March 6 decision, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals rejected an appeal brought by the public defender service over the use of shackles, finding that the issue was moot since the juvenile defendant had pleaded guilty, was sentenced and had completed probation. It called the blanket policy of shackling detained juveniles “undeniably . . . a significant issue” but said “the record is not sufficiently developed to permit us to decide this issue responsibly.” It suggested that “legislators, rule makers, or agencies of the District government may be far better positioned to consider the competing considerations.”

We think a change is in order. The D.C. Council, which is considering possible legislation, needs to consult with all stakeholders in crafting a policy that maintains public safety while treating youthful offenders fairly and humanely.