Maryland's second-highest court has ruled that youths should not appear shackled in juvenile courtrooms, a decision that cements long-standing efforts to curb the controversial practice.
In a unanimous decision this week, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals issued the first order requiring judges and magistrates to unshackle youths during juvenile court proceedings unless the person poses a security threat.
The issue has been debated for years because the juvenile system is designed to rehabilitate young offenders, and youth advocates argue that indiscriminate shackling further traumatizes a vulnerable population.
The Supreme Court has ruled that, in most cases, shackling adults in court violates their civil rights.
"We see no reason why extending to children the right guaranteed adult criminal defendants to appear in court free of shackles, absent a particularized finding of need, would impede the objectives of the juvenile system," wrote Judge J. Frederick Sharer in the appellate decision. "Indeed, a presumption against shackling would more closely serve those purposes while indiscriminate shackling threatens them."
The ruling affirms a nonbinding resolution adopted by the Maryland Court of Appeals last fall that has been implemented inconsistently. It also puts Maryland on a growing list of states that have laws or court rulings denouncing the practice as harmful to children and their due process.
"This is huge," said Christina Gilbert who heads a national campaign against juvenile shackling by the National Juvenile Defender Center, an advocacy group in Washington.
For more than a year, the campaign has tracked states' actions on juvenile shackling. Half the states and the District of Columbia have rejected indiscriminate shackling of juveniles.
Delaware's Legislature passed a bill Friday to limit the use of shackles on defendants in juvenile delinquency proceedings; it now goes to Gov. Jack Markell.
The Maryland public defender's office and the Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit, an independent agency in the state attorney general's office, also have called on the Department of Juvenile Services to stop indiscriminate shackling and strip searches.
Agency officials say they need to strip search and shackle those in their care to maintain security and keep contraband out of detention facilities. At the behest of the General Assembly, the agency and a task force are studying the practices.
When shackling juveniles in court, agency officials say they are following judges' orders.
But the public defender's office argued that the practice harms young defendants physically and psychologically, leads to a presumption of guilt and impairs their ability to defend themselves.
Following the lead of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Maryland's highest court passed a voluntary resolution in September to curtail the practice.
A Baltimore Sun investigation this year found that judges across the state moved to change their policies after the Court of Appeals resolution was adopted, except in Baltimore.
Though the resolution still gave juvenile judges discretion, it stated that the default should be to unshackle juveniles, as "placing children in shackles can be traumatizing and contrary to the developmentally appropriate approach to juvenile justice."
Judge Robert Kershaw, who heads the juvenile courts in Baltimore City, said at the time that while he believes courtroom shackling of juveniles is "sickening," it would be unrealistic to expect that every youth would be unshackled.
The public defender's office said shackling still happened too often, but the judge maintained that magistrates were exercising their discretion.
Terri Charles, a spokeswoman for the judiciary, said judges would not comment on rulings.
In his opinion, Sharer noted that the "presumption against shackling juvenile respondents has, in recent months, been one of public concerns and discussion."
Calling the Court of Appeals resolution "aspirational," he said the Court of Special Appeals issued the ruling "to effect uniformity and to eliminate disparities in practice from courtroom to courtroom."
"It's unfortunate that it took this long for the court to clarify because what we saw was a real disparity across the state," Gilbert said. "Now children should be treated equally no matter where in Maryland they are."
The ruling requires that juveniles not be shackled "unless and until there has been a finding on the record that the juvenile poses a security concern or threat that would disrupt those particular proceedings or involve danger to the juvenile or others."
In one way, the ruling was a hollow victory. The court upheld a magistrate's decision to keep a Baltimore boy shackled throughout his trial for stealing a cellphone. The ruling found that restraining the juvenile did not impede his right to a fair court proceeding and noted that the magistrate had discretion to do so.
"While on the one hand, I wish we had won this case for the sake of the client, I have to give the court credit for the rule it endorsed," said Brian Saccenti, the boy's attorney.
Saccenti said the public defender's office is still reviewing the ruling and has not determined whether to appeal it.
In the 2014 case, the Baltimore boy, identified as D.M. because juvenile court proceedings are kept confidential, spent his trial in handcuffs and leg shackles.
Attorneys argued that that violated his due process rights, made it more likely that the victim and witnesses would identify him as the thief, and hindered his ability to defend himself and to confer with his attorney because he could not take notes.
According to the transcript, the Baltimore magistrate denied defense motions to unshackle the boy, saying it was a judge's responsibility to keep the court safe. The boy's attorneys argued that he had no history of violence. The court officer said he had raised his middle finger at people in the past.
The magistrate offered a jacket to shield the youth's handcuffs from the witnesses and to put a pen and notepad in his lap so he could take notes with the cuffs on. The boy was ultimately found "involved," the equivalent of guilty in adult court.
Melissa Ricke, a Baltimore juvenile public defender, said she hopes the ruling sends a clear message.
"It will be one less barrier to young people believing that they have a fair shake at trial and maybe this is a fair and impartial process, as it should be," Ricke said. "But the fact that we even had to get to this point is frustrating, and somewhat absurd."