In the media storm surrounding the death of Freddie Gray, one item stands out for me and my colleagues: An NBC reporter interviewed a teen, a kid who had never been arrested before, who got picked up by Baltimore police during a protest. The boy talked about being shackled and feeling like a "caged animal." Those words are horribly familiar to juvenile defenders. They crop up again and again in statements by young people who have been shackled, something that is standard operating procedure in juvenile courts in Baltimore and in most of the United States. Handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains are common tools in America's juvenile justice system, a system whose mission ostensibly is to rehabilitate.
Why, out of all the horrible things to absorb in this story, would we focus on one kid, briefly in chains after a protest? Either we respect the rights and dignity of everyone, or we do not. Either we see — and insist that our justice system see — people charged with crimes as human beings, or we do not. If we can treat children accused of minor offenses like caged animals, then we can ignore a man who says, "I can't breathe." It is a continuum of disdain.
In 34 states, including Maryland, there are no limits placed on shackling in juvenile courts. In Maryland, kids as young as 7 may face juvenile charges. Most states have no minimum age. So across the country, elementary school kids can and do appear in court in chains. The vast majority of juvenile cases are misdemeanors.
People who care about the safety and dignity of children are trying to place sensible limits on shackling in the juvenile court. Currently half the counties in Maryland do not shackle youth indiscriminately. Dedicated juvenile defenders and other advocates in Maryland are working toward a court rule, which would be binding statewide, to allow shackling only after a judge makes a determination that a youth poses a demonstrable flight or safety risk. Defenders frequently express frustration that their young clients are shackled in court, even when the hearing will clearly end in the youth being released to his or her parents. The court is acknowledging that the child is not a danger.
Indeed, most kids pose no flight or safety risk. In states and counties that have placed similar limits on shackling, the juvenile court does its business safely and efficiently. The list of those states is growing. Indiana reformed juvenile shackling May 6th, following in the footsteps of the District of Columbia, Nebraska, Utah, Alaska, Washington State and South Carolina — all of which have recently instituted protections against shackling in the juvenile court.
One could make legal arguments all day about why automatic shackling violates a child's constitutional rights. The American Bar Association's thorough report on juvenile shackling, however, has already made that case. The ABA passed a resolution opposing indiscriminate juvenile shackling earlier this year. Instead, I will focus on what kids themselves say about shackling. Several youth who had been shackled testified at a recent hearing in Connecticut, another state that is considering limits on the practice. "Shackles aren't necessary because they make people feel less than what they are," said a 15-year-old girl who had been referred to court for truancy. "I felt like an animal," said another girl.
One boy testified that being shackled, "made me feel so bad about myself that when I walked into the court room, I felt like an animal being prepared to be put down.
"I also started to feel like I was some type of killer or a monster the way I was shackled, other people, including family, called me a criminal. Still until this day I don't think it was necessary to shackle me the way I was, due to the fact that I am no animal: I am just as human as the man with the robe in front of me."
I cannot say it any better than that.
We must institute a host of reforms to ensure that the protection of the law extends equally to everyone, regardless of skin color or ZIP code. This is complex work. But if we want to end the loss of life and the everyday loss of opportunity, we must first make one simple and profound change. We must recognize our common humanity. Unchaining our children would be a good place to start.
Paul B. DeWolfe is public defender for the state of Maryland; his email is PDeWolfe@opd.state.md.us.