For Not Shackling Kids to Work, Adults Must Behave

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OJJDP: Judge Steven Teske (headshot), man with beard and mustache, black robe, blue and green bowtie

Judge Steven Teske

To shackle, or not to shackle — that is the question seldom asked in many juvenile courts.

The indiscriminate shackling of kids during courtroom proceedings begs the question: Why are we hostile toward our children?

What does it say about us as a nation that we are inclined toward slapping cold, hard, metallic handcuffs, leg irons and waist chains on children without asking one simple question: Is the child a serious risk of fight or flight?

How can we arbitrarily dispense with asking this simple question while simultaneously preaching the virtues of due process that are so imbedded in our values and beliefs?

We swore to protect the constitutional right to presumption of innocence — yet we parade children into our courtrooms shackled like animals.

There is something contradictory in the courtroom scenario where a kid is standing before me with shackles about his wrists and ankles, or chains around his waist, and I am advising him that he is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

If that kid were me, and given my smart-aleck disposition when a teenager, I know I would have thought, maybe out loud with my handcuffed hands raised up for dramatic effect, “Really, are you a dumbass?”

Once this scenario finally resonated with me, especially looking like a dumbass, I decided to do something about it — I declared it unconstitutional.

Before publishing it, I spoke to my sheriff, who is responsible for courtroom security.

Before I could explain my reasons, the sheriff interrupted me, saying, “Your honor, it doesn’t matter what you order, I will obey it even if I disagree with it.

“That also means I will not speak against it if I disagree with your order,” he said.

I thanked him for his consideration of my judicial authority, but I wanted the opportunity to show him he merits the thinking behind my decision.

hub_arrow_2-01Sometimes we need to see to believe, and so he accepted my offer to go with me to Miami-Dade County Juvenile Court to observe how they implement their no-shackling policy.

Judge Orlando Prescott is an energetic, interactive and charismatic person who brings these qualities to the juvenile court bench in Miami-Dade. He set aside an entire day to accommodate our needs.

The day began meeting with his court security to go over the no-shackle policy and how it is operationalized. We observed them prepping the kids on courtroom behavior, followed them to the courtroom and watched the unshackling ritual leading to their unshackled appearance in court.

Nothing exciting, but that is a good thing in a no-shackling courtroom.

Judge Prescott convened a debriefing after court for questions. The sheriff asked very pointed questions about safety in which courtroom behavior was the common thread through every answer, but not so much the behavior of the kids.

[Related: What We’re Here For: The Role and Purpose of Juvenile Detention in the 21st Century]

The key to courtroom security is the behavior of the judge and staff.

Kids respond to what they see and hear. If it’s perceived as hurtful, they will respond from the hurt reverberating inside them. The unshackling of kids demands that judges must act with the judicial temperament becoming of a person who must exude fairness at all times, even when that kid makes us mad.

Trauma assessments have informed us that most kids come to us angry due to what adults have done to them — neglect, abuse, domestic violence, drugs and a host of other things associated with poverty.

Some may say I am an oversensitive white Southerner, but the picture of a white judge shackling every kid in a system disproportionately represented by kids of color conjures up notions of antebellum plantations, white slave masters and the shackling associated with this demoralizing and inhumane institution. If it bothers me, I know it must be traumatic for parents of black children.

Even in a jurisdiction that shackles indiscriminately, judges should still be careful not to incite the emotional demons residing inside our kids’ heads, or they create a security risk during transport or at the detention center.

The no-shackling policy helps to hone our judicial temperament of fairness by being mindful not to use inciting or inflammable words that will risk an angry response in the courtroom.

On the flight home, the sheriff turned to me and said, “I’ve drank your Kool-Aid.”

I signed the order: Only upon a motion and showing of serious risk of fight or flight is a kid shackled. This is few and far between.

Before each hearing, the kids are handed a “Courtroom Behavior Contract” and given the opportunity to agree to behave in return for unshackling. Signage is posted in the holding area outside the courtroom reminding them of their contractual obligations.

To no one’s surprise, there has been no incidents.

When it comes to helping kids improve their situation, the adults must ask themselves why they do what they do to kids. Do we do it for convenience, to teach a lesson or because of some subconscious pleasure to see a child shackled?

Pick your poison because it doesn’t matter why. Indiscriminate shackling for whatever reason is harmful.

One thing is for sure — we certainly don’t do it to help them.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

More related articles:

Juvenile Hall is Often No Place for Kids

JJIE Presents: The Juvenile Justice Documentary Project, in Partnership with Calamari Productions

Juvenile Justice on Appeal: Making our System of Justice More Accountable

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