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October 15, 2016
Juvenile offenders unshackled: A look 10-years later

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

A decade ago, when Carlos Martinez was vice chair of The Florida Bar Legal Needs of Children Committee, he urged members to “unchain the children.”

Now Miami-Dade Public Defender, Martinez issued a 10-year status report on stopping the practice of indiscriminately shacking detained children with handcuffs and leg irons in Miami-Dade Juvenile Court.

What has happened since Judge William Johnson granted, on September 11, 2006, the motions that made Miami-Dade the first county in Florida to stop the indiscriminate shacking of children?

“Miami’s experience shows that children can be treated humanely in juvenile court,” reports Martinez. “Ten years later, more than 30,000 unshackled children have gone to court in Miami, and none have successfully escaped or injured anyone in the courtroom.”

In 2006, as part of a National Juvenile Defender Center assessment team, Martinez 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.

He said shackling children conveyed a message that they are “dangerous animals.”

The Florida Bar Board of Governors unanimously approved the rule change initiated in 2006 by Martinez. A contentious debate waged for years among lawyers and judges in juvenile court. The matter came to the Florida Supreme Court from a 12-11-1 recommendation from the Juvenile Court Rules Committee, and in 2009, the court approved the rule change in SC09-141 In Re: Amendments to the Florida Rules of Juvenile Procedure.

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 the justices agreed restraints may be used only when determined necessary on a case-by-case basis.

Christina Gilbert, staff attorney and policy counsel of the NJDC, and the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Shackling, said Florida championing the end of routine shackling — through litigation, legislation, and court rules — has been instrumental in the massive increase in others states following Florida’s lead.

In 2006, only Illinois and Oregon barred indiscriminate shackling. Since Miami-Dade PD sparked the end of the practice in Florida, these states have ended the practice by rule, court decision, or statute: Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, and the District of Columbia.

Recently, the ABA and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges passed resolutions opposing the indiscriminate shackling of children. Additionally, the American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry issued a policy statement opposed to the automatic shackling of juveniles.

Rob Mason, past chair of the Juvenile Court Rules Committee, the Legal Needs of Children’s Committee, and director of juvenile court for the Fourth Circuit Public Defender, argued the case before the Florida Supreme Court in 2009. At the time, he called the ruling “a monumental victory for Florida’s children. Children in juvenile court are entitled to due process and fair treatment, and adoption of this rule is clearly consistent with those constitutional principles.”

Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-FL, recently said, “It was heartbreaking to see the young children in shackles in Miami. Putting children in shackles can be demoralizing and have major psychological ramifications. We succeeded in stopping the practice in Florida. Let’s end this disgraceful practice nationally.”

[Revised: 04-21-2017]