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January 1, 2010
Court: Unchain the children

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

Calling the indiscriminate shackling of children in Florida’s courtrooms “repugnant, degrading, humiliating, and contrary to the stated primary purpose of the juvenile justice system,” a majority of Florida Supreme Court justices agreed restraints may be used only when determined necessary on a case-by-case basis.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling is a monumental victory for Florida’s children,” said Rob Mason, past chair of the Juvenile Court Rules Committee and director of juvenile court for the Fourth Circuit Public Defender. He argued for the rule change before the high court.

“Children in juvenile court are entitled to due process and fair treatment, and adoption of this rule is clearly consistent with those constitutional principles.”

The court ruled December 17 in case No. SC09-141, In Re: Amendments to the Florida Rules of Juvenile Procedure, dealing with several rule amendments, and many in response to recommendations of the National Juvenile Defender Center in its 2006 report, Florida: An Assessment of Access to Counsel & Quality of Representation in Delinquency Proceedings.

The shackling issue sparked the most comments, a contentious debate waged for years among lawyers and judges in juvenile court. The matter came to the court from a 12-11-1 recommendation from the Juvenile Court Rules Committee to approve the proposed Rule 8.100 General Provisions for Hearings that says “instruments of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons, or straightjackets, may not be used on a child during court proceedings and must be removed prior to the child’s appearance before the court.”

Under the new rule effective January 1, shackling would be allowed only if the judge finds it necessary to prevent physical harm to the child or others; the child has a history of disruptive behavior; there is “founded belief” the child is a flight risk; and there are no less restrictive alternatives, such as the presence of law-enforcement officers.

The Florida Bar Board of Governors unanimously approved the rule change that was initiated in 2006 by Carlos Martinez, now 11th Circuit Public Defender, when he was vice chair of the Legal Needs of Children Committee and urged members to “unchain the children.”

Martinez took part in the NJDC assessment. He said he was shocked to witness an 11-year-old girl only 3-foot-7-inches tall shackled with handcuffs and a belly chain connected to both handcuffs and leg irons, as she was led to juvenile court at Tallahassee’s Leon County Courthouse.

“It’s horrific. It’s an affront to our decency. It doesn’t matter if it’s a misdemeanor. If the child is detained by the Department of Juvenile Justice, the child will be brought in shackles like an animal. It’s happening across the state,” Martinez said at the time.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court quoted from the NJDC report:

“Observers found that wrist and leg shackles with belly chains to be the norm in many juvenile courtrooms across the state. Without exception, every courtroom visited had youth, including very young children, fully shackled when they were brought from detention into the courthouse. These shackles remained on when the youth were brought into the courtroom itself.”

The NJDC further noted: “Youth in Florida’s courts were also typically shackled together in a group” and observers witnessed youth chained to “furniture, doors, or other fixed structures.”

In its opinion, the court said those shackling practices were also contrary to the “principles of therapeutic justice, a concept which this court has previously acknowledged. We also recognize, without deciding, that indiscriminate use of restraints on children in the courtroom in juvenile delinquency proceedings may violate the children’s due process rights and infringe on their right to counsel. We agree with the proponents of this amendment that the presumption should be that children are not restrained when appearing in court and that restraints may be used only upon an individualized determination that such restraint is necessary.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Charles Canady agreed with the Juvenile Court Rules Committee’s minority position that the rule “unduly restricts the ability of juvenile court judges to ensure that security is maintained in the courtroom.”

“Although I agree that juveniles should not be chained to one another in the courtroom or restrained in any other way that would interfere with their ability to have meaningful access to counsel, I dissent from the majority’s adoption of a rule establishing a blanket presumption against the use of any kind of restraints on juveniles appearing before a trial judge,” Canady wrote.

Due process concerns, he said, “come into play only when a restrained defendant appears before a jury,” and therefore do not justify the broad rule adopted by the majority.

Canady said he found it significant that Sixth Circuit Judge Raymond Gross pointed out “juveniles held in detention have already been determined to be high risk” by DJJ personnel.

“The reality is that being subjected to physical restraints is an inherent part of being in custody. Juveniles who are in custody will routinely be subjected to restraints when they are transported to and from court. Nothing in the proposed rule alters that fact. Accordingly, any ‘therapeutic’ impact of the rule will be insubstantial compared with the significant security risks that may arise from the implementation of the rule,” Canady wrote.

But Mason counters: “Courtroom security can still be maintained without the use of indiscriminant shackling. Shackling every detained child — regardless of age, gender, size, past record, or the offense they’ve charged with — has been a misguided and ill-formed practice, and I applaud the Florida Supreme Court for ending this practice by their ruling.”

[Revised: 03-17-2017]