The sight of shackles stunned law professor Mary Berkheiser. She was watching juvenile justice court about 10 years ago, preparing for the launch of a clinic for third-year law students.
She sat in the audience. The marshal came in with the defendants from detention, a motley group of teenagers and preteens bound as tightly as Harry Houdini, in leg irons, belly chains and handcuffs.
“We’ve represented children who are 8 and 9 years old,” Berkheiser said. “The marshals have wrapped the belly chains around them two or three times. Sometimes they trip over the leg irons.”
The scene stuck in her craw. It didn’t seem right to treat juvenile defendants as hardened crooks, especially in a system designed for rehabilitation. Most adult defendants aren’t chained or handcuffed. So why was the system treating 90-pound 12-year-olds like deranged criminals?
The professor urged her students to do something about it. So as part of the UNLV Boyd School of Law’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, the third-year students took up the issue of juvenile shackling. And earlier this month, they persuaded Judge William Voy, who presides over juvenile court, to change the policy. Marshals have already removed leg irons from most defendants.
Removing the belly chains and handcuffs is a bigger challenge. Voy originally wanted the chains removed by Aug. 1. But that target has been moved back as he negotiates with county leaders and law enforcement officials. In order to remove the chains, the courts will have to hire more security, Voy said.
“Because the juvenile detention center is under county management, we have to kind of broker this,” Voy said. “It is not just easily done.”
Voy and two hearing masters who work under his supervision hear all the juvenile justice cases in the county. Some of the kids who appear in their courts have committed serious crimes: felonies with deadly weapons, assaults, burglaries. Others have been caught with drugs or keep running away from home or school. The juvenile detention center releases most kids back to family. When those kids come to court, they do so in street clothes, without shackles or handcuffs. The kids who can’t be released before trial — the ones who have committed serious crimes or don’t have a stable homes — are kept in detention and brought to trial in chains.
Despite the expense of hiring more security, Voy said he is committed to changing the policy. He believes it is the right thing for juvenile defendants, and could also prevent a costly lawsuit against the county. Several states and counties have been sued over shackling. When the matter comes before the court, shackling almost always loses, Voy said.
Instead of indiscriminately shackling all juveniles from detention, the new policy will allow for shackling only when a defendant is at risk of escape or violence.
It will be similar to laws passed in North Carolina, California and Florida, which have all banned the practice of indiscriminate shackling. Instead, the court must hold hearings before they cuff kids and put them in chains.
The new rules won’t change everything. The Department of Juvenile Justice Services routinely shackles kids to transport them from the detention center to the courtroom. That will continue. Once they are in the courtroom, most of the defendants will have their chains removed.
The practice of shackling began many years ago, when the courthouse was under construction, Voy said. Since juveniles and adults can’t mix in the same holding areas, marshals had to move the kids to an unsecured area. To keep them from running, they put them in chains.
The construction finished, but the policy stayed. During their research, Berkheiser’s students found out that Clark is the only county in the state that routinely shackles juvenile defendants. They had been planning to introduce legislation to change the practice, and even found a couple members of the General Assembly who wanted to help. But since it wasn’t a statewide problem, they decided to look for a local solution.
This summer, an editor asked Berkheiser to write the Dean’s Column for the June 2012 issue of Nevada Lawyer, a magazine published by the State Bar of Nevada. After her anti-shackling column appeared, Voy began to make changes to the policy.
“Shackling treats children like wild animals, not like people that the juvenile justice system is duty-bound to protect,” Berkheiser wrote.
The end of shackling is coming at a price. Voy has allowed parents to sit with defendants during hearings. That will end when the chains are removed. Court marshals will have to be more vigilant about separating the kids who wear shackles from the ones who don’t, to prevent violence against the kids in chains who can’t protect themselves.
Still, Berkheiser thinks the benefits of removing shackles outweigh the costs. Kids in chains often seem defeated and unwilling to participate in hearings, she said. Unlike adult court, the goal of juvenile court is not to punish kids, but to rehabilitate them.
“The whole principle of juvenile court is to recognize that these young people are works in progress,” Berkheiser said. “We really need to help them become better adults. Certainly they need consequences, but some of them also need counseling and mental-health treatment. We need to make sure we’re not bringing down the hammer so hard that they’re squashed.”