By barring the use of leg shackles and handcuffs on juveniles in the courtroom unless there is a likelihood of violence, the Florida Supreme Court has made the criminal justice system less traumatic for children. Removing these physical restraints adds a measure of fairness and dignity to the way young people are handled by the courts.
In courtrooms across Florida it has been routine to have juveniles paraded around during preliminary court appearances in wrist and leg shackles. Sometimes children would be chained to furniture inside the courtroom to keep them from moving. It didn't matter whether they were considered dangerous or not; the children would appear before a judge and interact with their attorney looking like a member of a chain gang.
With good reason this excessive restraint has been condemned by child advocates, mental health professionals and public defenders. The shackles cause psychological harm and violate due process. Being restrained in such a humiliating way can have a lasting impact and may dissuade a child from participating in his own defense.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger says he has been lobbying against the shackles for a dozen years, but local judges had not come around, even when the courthouse was a secured facility. That changed last month when the high court decided 6-1, with only Justice Charles Canady dissenting, to adopt new statewide courtroom procedures in accordance with recommendations offered by the National Juvenile Defender Center. Now shackling is permitted only after an individual determination that courtroom safety is at risk or the defendant is a flight risk. The high court barely contained its disgust at the practice calling it "repugnant, degrading (and) humiliating."
To fulfill the new requirements some adjustments have been made, including a new wall in Hillsborough to separate juvenile courtrooms from the lobby. But those are minor costs relative to the benefits won for juvenile rehabilitation and due process by taking off the chains.