TAMPA — Judges and court security staffs statewide are scrambling to comply with a new rule that ends the indiscriminate shackling of juveniles in courtrooms.
But that doesn't mean they are happy about it.
"It's not safe," said Circuit Judge Ashley Moody, who hears juvenile cases in Hillsborough County.
The rule took effect Jan. 1. It prohibits the use of restraints such as handcuffs and chains during juvenile court appearances except in cases where a judge believes there is a flight risk or potential harm that cannot be prevented by less restrictive alternatives.
In ordering the change last month, the majority of Florida Supreme Court justices found the blanket practice of shackling young defendants "repugnant, degrading (and) humiliating" and contrary to the rehabilitative purpose of the juvenile justice system.
Defense lawyers and child advocates supported the decision, which ranks Florida among at least eight states that do not permit indiscriminate shackling of youth.
"About time," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who pushed for such a rule for a dozen years. "There should not be a presumption that kids are bad."
Prosecutors, law enforcement and many jurists preferred to keep decisions about courtroom security in the hands of the presiding judge.
They don't necessarily quibble with the philosophy of treating juveniles differently than adults, who are typically restrained during all criminal proceedings except jury trials. But many officials just aren't convinced that the change accomplishes much or considers the impulsiveness of youth.
They note that juveniles can still be restrained during transport from detention, in holding cells and walking to courtrooms.
"Accordingly, any 'therapeutic' impact of the rule will be insubstantial compared with the significant security risks that may arise from the implementation of the rule," Justice Charles Canady wrote in his dissenting opinion.
Moody's concern comes from experience. She remembers being so uncomfortable at the sight of shackled juveniles when she first took the bench that she decided to try unchaining them. She instructed her bailiffs to begin the experiment with an 11-year-old who was being sentenced.
When the restraints came off, the child bolted. Two deputies had to take him down.
"I said, 'Never again. We won't do it again,' " Moody recalled recently. "Without a doubt, I am convinced that you should be able to keep them in some sort of restraints for the kids' own safety too."
Several judges pointed out that juveniles were shackled only when they were in detention, meaning they had already been determined to be high risk.
Moody stressed, however, that she and her colleagues can adapt to change, and they are doing so with an eye toward keeping things safe for personnel, visitors and juvenile defendants.
In Hillsborough, that included installing a new wall and locked doorway to separate the juvenile courtrooms from the lobby. The idea is to keep public traffic at a minimum and give juvenile defendants nowhere to go if they try to run.
During hearings, detention officers now shepherd defendants into court individually rather than bringing them in as a group.
One day last week, the sound of rattling chains could be heard outside Moody's courtroom as officers unshackled juveniles one by one. When they heard their name called, they stepped into court with their arms folded behind their backs and an officer hovering over them.
Accused of crimes such as burglary, grand theft and robbery, they waited to hear if the judge would keep them in detention. An 11-year-old accused of battering his mother smirked as his mom told Moody she was too scared to have him come home.
On this day, no one misbehaved.
"I knew it could be done," Dillinger said. "It's just the attitude of people had to be changed."
"We are concerned about it," said Col. Jim Previtera, who oversees courthouse security in Hillsborough. "I've just asked our people to be hyper-vigilant."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.