Indiscriminate juvenile shackling, like putting kids 'in the stocks'

This story appears in the Q&As with Vinnie Rotondaro feature series. View the full series.

by Vinnie Rotondaro

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It is a form of “public shaming,” like “putting people in the stocks” as the “Puritans used to do.” Only Puritans “at least had to prove to their satisfaction that the person had done something wrong.”

“What we’re doing to kids is worse than that.” We shame them at “detention hearings, during their trial — in all proceedings.”

That’s how lawyer David Shapiro chose to analogize the practice of indiscriminate juvenile shackling, a punishment that occurs daily in juvenile courts across America. Shapiro manages the Campaign Against Indiscriminate Juvenile Shackling, a Washington, D.C.,-based effort seeking the end of the automatic shackling of children in delinquency court. To date, only 14 states have banned the practice of indiscriminate juvenile shacking “either in practice, in writing, or both” Shapiro says. But even in those states, because the courts are administered at a county level, bans are difficult to enforce and shackling can still take place. Elsewhere in America, it is a regular occurrence. NCR spoke with Shapiro to learn more. 

What does indiscriminate juvenile shackling mean?

At a national level, most kids who come from a detention facility come in shackles. And what that means is that they come to court at least in handcuffs and typically in leg irons, which are metal handcuffs fastened around the ankles and oftentimes connected to a belly chain. A belly chain is a stainless steal rope that is wrapped around your stomach. It connects to the hand cuffs and leg irons. Only a handful of states have statutes or court rules prohibiting this practice and making it so that a determination must first be made about applying the shackles.

Otherwise it’s indiscriminate. 


How often does indiscriminate juvenile shackling happen?

It happens every day. For example, in Baltimore city a child can be put in a detention facility for simple assault, or stealing a candy bar from a candy store. If the police can’t get in touch with the child’s parents, the child can’t be sent home. So they’re kept in a detention facility. And when they go from the detention facility to court, they’re automatically put in shackles. They could be released. The court may have a hearing where the judge says, “Oh, they don’t need to be in detention, or in a facility … it’s an offense that a lot of kids might commit.” Or, “It was just an impulsive act, and we can work on this.”  Or, “We can release you on community detention,” which means that they are electronically monitored, but don’t need to be detained by the state. Regardless, in court, the kids are in shackles.

Demographically, who does it most affect?

It is indiscriminate in who it nets. But because the juvenile justice system already has issues dealing with race and fairness, it definitely affects more African-American and Hispanic youth than white youth. And in certain areas, native youth as well. 

What do the shackles mean for young people? What's the received message?

It is really hard to study, especially to understand the effects of shackling as opposed to simply being put in detention, or being put in the system, or just being arrested. What we do know is that at the age at which kids first come into contact with the juvenile system, they are undergoing their adolescent development and forming their identity. Experts say that when you put kids in shackles it can become a part of their identity. They see it as, “This is who I am.” They see themselves as someone who deserves to be shackled, as someone that is a criminal. Instead of teaching them a lesson, it tells them, “The lesson is, you are a criminal.”

So it's like a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

Exactly. These kids, we hear them say to defenders and their families, “I feel like a murderer.” We’ve heard kids say that. We’ve heard children say they feel like they’re “criminals.” That they feel like an "animal,” that they feel like a "slave.” And we’ve heard children say, which may be even worse, “I don’t really care about the shackles.” We’ve heard them say that. And what that means is that they’ve internalized the shackles as normal, that they see being shackled a normal state for them.

Additionally, experts tell us that the children are less able to pay attention in court, less able to pay attention to their attorney, less able to pay attention to the judge. 

So it affects the judicial process?

It definitely does. The United States Supreme Court has already said that kids have trouble understanding judicial proceedings. [“Juveniles mistrust adults and have limited understandings of the criminal justice system and the roles of the institutional actors within it. They are less likely than adults to work effectively with their lawyers to aid in their defense.” Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48, 78 (2010).] So when you have a judge issuing instruction on how to follow probation, or on what rules need to be followed, the kids are often paying more attention to the shackles and the noise they make than to what the judge is saying. 

Does indiscriminate juvenile shackling serve any real purpose or function?

Most of the time, no. And all we’re asking is that a determination be made, that the child has a voice by way his or her attorney to say that these restraints aren’t needed. [According to Shapiro, "As of 2014, when more than 25,000 children had gone through the Miami-Dade juvenile courts unshackled, there have been no escapes or injuries. These results have been replicated in jurisdictions across the country."]

But they are symbolic.

Yes, and the symbolism of these shackles is made real when family members see their children in them. It’s made real by the harm that families suffer when they see their child in shame. Sometimes, say because of work, parents may not be able to see their child in detention. So the first time they are able to see their child is in court, and they see their child as a criminal, there right in front of them. 

In terms of taking action, what works best? What approach does your campaign take?

One of the things that makes the juvenile justice system difficult to work in, besides confidentiality rules — which are great to protect kids but sometimes make it hard to learn what’s really going on in the system — is that there is not just one juvenile justice system. There are many systems. There can be different court systems at the county level and at the state level. We’re trying to work at a state-by-state level to get statutes enacted that end the automatic shackling of youth in court, or to enact statewide court rules which essentially have the same effect. 

What can ordinary citizens do?

Most people across the country don’t know about this issue, because most people don’t know what goes on inside juvenile court. I think learning about this issue is the first step. I’ve never spoken with someone and told them about the problem of automatic shackling of kids, and had them say, “Oh yes, every child deserves to be shackled.” I mean, this is a problem that everyone recognizes. So I think it is a simple matter of writing a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, crafting op-eds, reaching out to congress people and legislators. Once people know more about it, I think that will be all the pressure that is needed. We’re not asking for something that hurts society. We’re asking for something that helps society. 

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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