In his decades as an attorney in juvenile court throughout west Alabama, Gary Blume has seen children of all description in shackles.
“I’ve represented kids as young as 10 in juvenile court,” Blume said. “I’ve seen kids who sit in the courtroom and their feet don’t touch the ground.”
According to several people who have worked in juvenile courts throughout the state, including Calhoun County, it’s common for children in detention to be in chains when taken before a judge, regardless of age, crime committed or any other mitigating factors.
A bill before the Alabama House of Representatives would ban the use of chains and other restraints on minors, leaving the decision to pursue the use of restraints to the discretion of judges. House Bill 474 was discussed in the Criminal subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Restraints include handcuffs, leg irons, straitjackets and belly chains, and juvenile offenders usually wear the uniforms of their detention facility, according to Blume and Brian Huff, a former juvenile court judge from Birmingham. These uniforms range from orange jumpsuits in Tuscaloosa to blue sweat suits in Birmingham.
Reasons to use restraints include potential for harm to the child or to others in the courtroom, as well as evidence of significant flight risk, according to Rep. Merika Coleman-Evans, D-Birmingham, the sponsor of the bill. According to Blume, cases where these criteria would be met would be very rare.
In Calhoun County, as in other places in Alabama, any child who comes from a detention facility will appear in restraints before the judge, according to District Judge Laura Phillips, who handles juvenile cases.
The bill would allow judges to decide whether those shackles should be removed, but Phillips doesn’t believe that should be the case.
“I don’t think a judge should be making that decision,” she said. “I can decide whether a child should be found guilty of a crime or not, but as far as safety measures… I don’t feel like, as a judge, I have the background in security and law enforcement to make that decision.”
Instead, Phillips believes the decision should be made by the law enforcement agency that transports the children, in this case the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson disagreed, saying that anything that happens in the courtroom should be at the purview of the judge.
A national issue
This is not just an Alabama issue.
“We estimate that more than 100,000 children are shackled in courts across the country in a given year,” said David Shapiro, a lawyer with the National Juvenile Defender Center in Washington, D.C., and the campaign manager of the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling.
Shapiro said juvenile shackling has started to get a lot of attention in the last 10 years, and that before South Carolina passed legislation banning indiscriminate shackling last year, only a half dozen states had put similar bans in writing.
Coleman-Evans was approached by the National Campaign to Reform State Juvenile Justice Systems with the issue, and began her own research, she said. The campaign declined to comment for this story.
The bill would take away automatic restraint as a general rule in courtrooms and require the court to provide facts to support the use of shackling. Children in custody would still be restrained during transport to and from the courthouse.
Support and opposition in Alabama
Both Blume and Huff have voiced support for HB 474.
Blume said most of the children in juvenile detention are not violent offenders, and shackling only serves to embarrass them, if not cause emotional trauma.
“They’re humiliated as if they had done some horrible crime against society,” he said.
Shay Farley of the Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, who helped write HB 474, argued that shackling interferes with the court’s presumption of innocence. Although juvenile offenders do not have jury trials, the restraints still change the impression the child gives.
“It is prejudicial to show someone in chains,” she said. “How does it look?”
Dr. Peter Lusche, a child psychiatrist with at the East Alabama Medical Center near Auburn, agreed that shackling gives a bad impression of children who appear before a court.
Lusche argued for procedural justice, a theory within the field of psychology which says people are more likely to comply with punishment if they are treated fairly during the judicial process. Lusche said shackling interferes with that goal.
“If they can treat youngsters with some kind of dignity, they are much more likely to comply with whatever consequences they have,” he said.
Amerson believes the safety issue is a real concern.
“People who are angry or out of control… they are subject to harm themselves,” he said. “If you don’t have them restrained, it can become a real issue.”
Phillips also voiced concern over the potential for self-harm.
“I’ve had a child in my courtroom before who wanted to commit suicide, who literally tried to throw himself down the stairwell,” she said. “Thank God he was shackled.”