by Liz Daube
Lawyers and law-makers throughout the state are debating the courtroom shackling of accused juvenile offenders, and local opponents are waiting to see if popular criticism and proposed legislation will put an end to the practice.
In September, the Florida Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee passed a motion encouraging a ban on the indiscriminate use of chains and shackles in juvenile courtrooms throughout Florida – a practice that has been typical for more than a decade. In recent months, Miami-Dade and Broward counties have stopped shackling accused juvenile offenders unless they pose security or flight risks.
Jacksonville has its own unique situation. The Duval County Courthouse has been shackling juveniles – and adults in many cases, such as first appearances – for 20 years, according to Public Defender Bill White.
“Here, they shackle everybody,” White said, adding that other jurisdictions, such as Miami-Dade, don’t usually shackle adults because of due process rights.
In Duval County, defendants typically wear ankle chains and handcuffs on their way to and inside the courtroom. White said the shackles are typically removed from adults for jury trials because they imply guilt to a jury, and the defendant is entitled to presumed innocence by law.
“The judge is the jury [for juvenile cases,]” White continued. “The view is that is doesn’t hurt for the kids to be in shackles in front of the judge.”
But many child advocates have argued that shackles create mental and emotional trauma for children with relatively minor offenses.
“They are all herded in, regardless of flight risk,” said Brian Cabrey, a Jacksonville attorney and child advocate with nonprofit Florida Children First. “They sit there for hours and hours on end, and the only excuse is this is the only way we can do it ... If we ever need a real-life consequence of this whole courthouse debacle, [this is it.]”
Cabrey said local attorneys opposed to changing Jacksonville’s shackling practices argue that security is a bigger problem here because of Duval County’s aged, overcrowded courthouse.
“The lawyers are within arms’ reach of [juvenile] defendants,” said Jay Plotkin. He’s the chief assistant state attorney and a member of the Florida Bar committee that encouraged a juvenile shackling ban; he chose not to vote on the decision. “They’re small courtrooms, so that certainly presents some security risks ... We’ve erred on the side of over-generalizing security risks, but it’s tough not to over-generalize security risks.”
Cabrey and others against juvenile shackling said the security risks should be assessed on an individual basis.
“What we’re told now is they’re so dangerous, we have to shackle them,” said White. “We have become a society that’s afraid of our children.
“I think we’re paying far too much attention to the potential danger ... We’ve never had an incident in the 32 years I’ve been here. If they’re over 14 and repeat offenders, they’re going to be tried as an adult anyway.”
Other arguments against changing the shackling policy have included the “deterrent effect,” which holds that seeing others in shackles or wearing them helps the suspects and others understand the seriousness of crime.
“Part of the goal has to be to rehabilitate these kids,” said Cabrey. “Can we afford to not do that? ... Most of them are going to walk at 18 anyway.”
Plotkin said he thinks changing the law to stop shackling by default would create a “burden to present evidence to the judge on why someone should be shackled,” a process he said “might take too long” and tie up the court.
White said “shackling is an easy answer” and changing the policy would inconvenience bailiffs, who might have to bring the juvenile suspects in one at a time if there were no shackles.
“That’s too bad,” said White. “You don’t have to change the courtroom. Change the way you deal with the courtroom.
“If it takes more, then add a couple more officers. It’s not supposed to be easy. There are difficult decisions that have to be made.”
Plotkin said the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office is in charge of courthouse security, and the State Attorney’s Office “has no say-so on it.”
JSO did not return phone calls seeking comment. Neither did the Duval Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
Two judges handle local juvenile delinquent cases: Henry Davis and A.C. Soud, Jr. Soud did not return calls seeking comment. Davis said he “leaves that up to the Sheriff’s department” because “they’re responsible for safe guarding these children.” He added he is new to the juvenile division; Davis switched over from felony court in January.
“But if you aren’t shackling all of them,” Davis said, “how do you know which ones will be shackled?”
White said his office doesn’t intend to legally challenge local juvenile shackling. He said any changes will likely come from the state legislature. The local public defender’s office was the first one in Florida to challenge juvenile shackling, he said.
“We did it in 1991,” said White, “and we lost.”
Cabrey said he thinks the issue has resurfaced statewide because word has spread from an outspoken chief assistant public defender in Miami, Carlos Martinez. Martinez was quoted in an October Florida Bar News article:
“These children are presumed innocent, yet the message we are sending is they are dangerous animals, herded in chains ... A lot of kids in juvenile courts have issues involving mental illness, retardation and disabilities. This is just heaping it on.”