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Md. should stop cuffing and shackling juvenile offenders

We urge Maryland's Task Force to Study the Restraint, Searches, and Needs of Children in the Juvenile Justice System to carefully consider the best practices across the country before concluding its work.

This is especially important regarding the use of shackles or handcuffs to control unruly youth, which currently is a common practice in Maryland ("Department of Juvenile Services considering limits to strip-searches and shackling," Aug. 15).

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Our experience working with at-risk children and youth in juvenile detention centers and jails, residential treatment centers, community-based services and the juvenile court has led us to conclude that the use of such restraints is rarely appropriate and only adds to the trauma these children and youth have suffered.

We recognize that it is important to balance the requirements of public safety and the rights of children. We also recognize that this is particularly important when transporting youth to and from their court hearings.

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But the juvenile courts and the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) often can do their jobs more effectively and efficiently without resorting to the use of such restraints. A large percentage of young people in the juvenile justice system have been victims of abuse and have lived in multiple placements throughout their lives.

Maryland's residential treatment centers under the Behavioral Health Administration serve hundreds of children daily without the use of shackles and handcuffs. Such practices are additional proof that mechanical restraints such as handcuffs and shackles are unnecessary in most cases.

The difference in treatment appears based on whether youths are seen first by the courts or by the mental health system. Often the same children and youth are known to both social service agencies, the mental health system and the juvenile courts.

If the task force recommends changes in policies and practices, the courts and DJS will face significant challenges. To successfully change the manner in which the courts and DJS deal with juveniles in their care requires on-going training in the use of alternative methods of addressing behavior problems. In addition, it necessitates appropriate staffing and close supervision of all those interacting with the children and youth in their care.

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The good news is that there is abundant help available at little or no cost. Technical assistance and training are readily available from organizations like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, the National Law Enforcement Policy Center and the Center for Children's Law & Policy, among others. These resources are easily accessible to the General Assembly's study group for information gathering, as well.

If we are to protect vulnerable youth as well as the general public it is absolutely essential for Maryland to stop using handcuffs and shackles to control children and youth. Instead, Maryland should embrace the "best practices" in the field and eventually conform to national standards regarding the use of restraints on children and youth in custody.

Richard W. Friedman and Stanley E. Weinstein

Mr. Friedman is a former site coordinator for the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in Baltimore; Mr. Weinstein is a licensed certified clinical social worker.

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