Unchain Maryland's children

Op-ed: Think it's OK to shackle a child? Picture your kid in the chains.

Maryland lawmakers are weighing a decision to withhold $1 million from the state's juvenile justice budget as they await answers from the department about the routine use of strip searches and shackles on youths in state custody.

The move is in response to proposed legislation that would prohibit the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) from putting youths under the age of 18 in leg shackles, or other physical restraints, and performing strip-searches. It also prohibits using restraints on pregnant teens, with very few exceptions.

We applaud lawmakers for addressing this troubling and difficult issue head-on. The practice of shackling juveniles indiscriminately, or subjecting them to strip searches, has no place in our society, and clearly runs counter to our efforts here in Baltimore to build a more just and equitable justice system, especially for vulnerable youths who find themselves in trouble with the law.

For adolescents who are often already dealing with a range of challenging and traumatic life experiences, rough treatment like shackling is highly destructive and certainly is not conducive to helpful and constructive rehabilitation. There is ample research suggesting that humiliating or shaming adolescents does not induce them to simply "flip a switch" and alter their behavior in any meaningful way. Rather, these practices advertise a justice system that is cruel, capricious and lacking in respect for human dignity — and adolescents highly value their dignity. Research also indicates that youths who appear in court, and subsequently drop out of school, single out the experience of being put in shackles — and appearing in a public courtroom, shackled — as a highly demoralizing experience that contributes to their inability to return to, or get onto, a more positive and productive path.

In Baltimore, the humiliating ritual of shackling youths affects males of color far more than any other cohort. Baltimore City Police Department data indicate that 59 percent of all juvenile arrests in the city occur in high-poverty neighborhoods, which are, as we know, majority African-American. Owing to the twin barriers of urban poverty and racism, we are not only criminalizing black youths at alarming rates but also adding insult to injury with traumatic and unnecessary practices like shackling.

Some may argue that physically restraining youths in DJS custody is needed to keep both the youths and the adults responsible for them safe. There is evidence to suggest otherwise. For instance, Miami-Dade County in Florida has ended the practice of indiscriminately shackling youths, and between 2006 and 2011, 20,000 youths appeared in court, unrestrained. No one escaped or was harmed.

Any truly comprehensive effort to reform our juvenile justice system in Baltimore will need to make significant changes to policies and practices, like putting boys under 18 in leg shackles, that make it more difficult than it already is for these young people to encounter a system that truly cares for them and wants to help them do better.

As the Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator for Baltimore, I am tasked, along with others, with reducing the over-representation of youths of color in the city's juvenile justice system. There is a great deal of work to be done to achieve this goal — and treating young people who engage with the juvenile justice system as the children they are, rather than as prisoners, is an important step on that journey.

I would ask anyone who doubts the importance and the impact of this issue to close their eyes and picture their own child, aged 14, standing in public, wearing leg chains.

It's an awful sight — and one that no boy or girl in Baltimore should be made to endure.

Glenn R. Love is the director of equity and opportunity at the Family League of Baltimore and is Baltimore's point person for President Obama's My Brother's Keeper Initiative. He can be reached at glove@familyleague.org.

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