Youth advocates and members of the Arizona Public Defender Association want the Arizona Supreme Court to do what many other states have done and end the indiscriminate shackling of youth in juvenile courtrooms.
In a petition submitted to the court, attorney Christina Phillis writes, “The goal of juvenile court is to rehabilitate youth, placing them in a better position than before they entered the juvenile justice system; [however] psychologists around the country and locally have opined that the placement of children in restraints has a determinately long-lasting effect on the child’s mental health.”
In the last decade, multiple experts and studies have found that kids who are shackled — i.e., restrained with leg irons, belly chains, and/or handcuffs – are more likely to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and often have a much harder time paying attention or behaving respectfully in the courtroom than those who are not.
As such, the practice is increasingly being re-evaluated and made less severe by criminal-justice systems around the country.
But that’s not to say there isn’t any push-back.
As it stands, each county in Arizona determines its own policies and procedures for when to shackle, but if adopted, the petition would create statewide standards that children aren’t restrained in the courtroom unless they pose a specific flight risk or a violence threat.
Phillis, who has litigated in the juvenile court system for 23 years, says there are many who feel that her petition would make children more likely to try to run away during the transportation process or become violent, which could compromise the safety of the courtroom. She calls these claims ridiculous:
“It makes no sense that we shackle children to the degree we do. In the adult court system, you can sit next to a person facing capital punishment who is not wearing handcuffs – I think we have our priorities mixed up,” she says.
“I’ve had kids tell me they feel like an animal, that’s it's embarrassing, that they feel like a criminal [when they’re brought into a courtroom shackled], and I’ve heard parents cry [when] they see their children in handcuffs and shackles. For any child, it’s already devastating enough to be detained and in handcuffs, but to actually watch your parent have that kind of reaction makes you realize how bad it is.”
She adds that counties in the state, like Yuma, have led the way in curtailing the practice, and that court officials there say the results have been really positive.
“I definitely believe that all children shouldn’t be automatically shackled,” says Tim Hardy, director of the Yuma County Juvenile Detention Center. “I know  years ago we used to shackle everybody, but we believe that the evidence shows you don’t need to do that.”
Instead, he explains, the county uses five criteria to determine which children to restrain:
- Is the child pending a recommendation for commitment by juvenile corrections officers?
- Has the child made verbal or written threats to harm someone who may be at the court hearing?
- If the child is currently on probation, what does his or her probation officer recommend?
- What does the detention supervisor at the facility housing the child recommend?
- Where does the child rank on the “behavioral-level program?” Has the child been violent in the past?
While reiterating that he only speaks for Yuma County, Hardy says he thinks every juvenile court director in the state agrees that not every child be shackled, but that their opinions differ about which children to shackle and when.
He points to past push-back against universal directives from the Supreme Court, explaining that “the directors of the court didn’t like feeling like someone was telling them what to do,” because the situation in every county and courthouse is different.
“To best of my recollection, this is the first time that anyone’s ever requested that all state juvenile-detention facilities adopt it,” he says, adding that he has no idea how the court will rule.
While prominent organizations and groups like the American Bar Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Child Welfare League of America, the National Center for Mental Health & Juvenile Justice, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have come out against the indiscriminate shackling of youth, many places have been slow to make changes.
In Arizona, while shackling has been curtailed in a few counties – Yuma, Maricopa, and Pima, for instance – knowing how much change has been made is hard to know since there’s no public data available about the number of youth shackled.
But Phillis says her experience in the court has led her to believe it’s still all too common a practice, even in counties where it’s technically limited.
Consider Maricopa County, she says:
An op-ed in the Arizona Republic authored last year by Eric Meaux (Chief Juvenile Probation Officer for Maricopa County) and Colleen McNally (Presiding Juvenile Judge of Maricopa County Superior Court) stated that nearly 40 percent of youth in the county’s juvenile courts appear without some form of restraint.
While they cite this as progress, Phillis says shackling 60 percent of children still seems unnecessarily high, which is why the Supreme Court needs to take action.
Meaux, meanwhile, tells New Times he’s proud of the progress Maricopa County has made since it updated its protocol in March 2014 because he agrees “a one-size-fits-all” standard for shackling is unnecessary.
Meaux declined to comment further, nor would he comment on Phillis’ petition, noting only that in his opinion, it doesn’t “really capture the full context of the issue.”
The decision to restrain a youth is certainly a complicated one that’s filled with many factors, but, as Phillis says, she and many others believe there’s much room for improvement in Arizona.
“Who we put shackles on is arbitrary – it’s based on the charge they come in on or whether they have attempted to run away, and it doesn’t have anything to do with who the child is,” she says, adding that “in states that have limited shackling, judges say their courtrooms function better” because the children are more cooperative and engaged.
Bottom line, she says: “I would not treat my own children this way, I don’t want us treating us any child this way. If you know the kid is a threat, you can ask that the handcuffs remain on, but it shouldn’t be the default.”
The Supreme Court will accept public comment on the petition until May 20. Directions on how to submit a comment can be found here.
Read the full petition: