'Degrading': Advocates urge Kansas to end indiscriminate shackling of youth in court

  • In US
  • 2022-01-26 21:03:54Z
  • By Kansas City Star

Civil rights advocates are urging Kansas lawmakers to pass legislation that would prohibit shackling youth during court hearings unless a judge determines they must be restrained.

During a hearing Wednesday, Aileen Berquist, community engagement manager for the ACLU of Kansas, which supports two bills on the issue, said shackling children causes physical and emotional damage while undermining their presumption of innocence.

"There's no reason for Kansas courts to automatically shackle and restrain children appearing before them," Berquist told members of the state Senate Judiciary Committee. "This bill would end the practice, except where absolutely necessary."

The legislation, Senate Bill 321, would prohibit handcuffs, leg shackles or other restraints on juveniles in court. It would allow a judge to authorize them if they determine during a hearing that they are the "least restrictive" way to prevent harm to the juvenile or others. The judge could also permit them if the child is considered a flight risk or has a history of disruptive behavior.

A prosecutor or a court officer could also recommend a juvenile be restrained, which would be part of the record. The judge would then allow the defendant's attorney to weigh in.

Thirty-two other states, including Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois, as well as Washington, D.C., have legal limitations on the use of restraints on young people in court. Kansas has no such statewide guidance.

Mike Fonkert, campaign director of Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said adults enjoy presumptions against restraints in court, but children do not. That's despite the fact that restraining juveniles can be "degrading," he said, noting that children are "particularly susceptible to the emotional traumas" that shackling can cause.

Medical experts generally agree shackling for no reason can be traumatizing and counterproductive. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry calls routine shackling "inconsistent with the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile justice system."

The Kansas District Judges Association opposes the proposed legislation and calls it unnecessary. In written testimony, the association said its judges believe juveniles are generally not restrained during hearings in the state "absent a demonstrated need." With the additional hearing to consider restraints, the law would cost the court system more money, the judges said.

"We also ask you to consider that we deal with a very wide range of offenses under this code which may include murder, serious sex offenses, and drug offenses in addition to what are often considered more minor matters," Chief Judge Merlin G. Wheeler, of Lyon and Chase counties, wrote on behalf of the association.

As part of a 2020 report, assessors from the Gault Center, previously the National Juvenile Defender Center, found through interviews and observations from 21 hearings that juveniles are "nearly always shackled" during court proceedings in Kansas. No stakeholder, including defense attorneys, addressed the shackles at those hearings, including ones for defendants as young as 14.

In one courtroom, assessors saw three youth chained together for unrelated hearings. In another instance, a probation officer "insisted" that shackles were removed before court, but assessors witnessed children chained later that day.

The assessment team, which included juvenile law professors, captured a range of views on the issue, from prosecutors who disapproved of non-selective restraining to a defender who remarked that some children are "hardcore enough" that they are "not bothered by it." One probation officer had never wondered if shackles are "detrimental" to kids.

"I'm numb to it," the officer responded, according to the report.

Greg Smith, special deputy sheriff for government affairs for the Johnson County Sheriff's Office, said the agency is neutral on the bill. But deputies were concerned if they could restrain a juvenile in court if, for example, they threatened a victim.

"Because the bill is silent, we're kind of up in the air on what we can do," Smith told lawmakers.

Sen. Ethan Corson, a Fairway Democrat, said he did not find that worry compelling.

"I just think it's obvious that in the moment of a security issue arising in court that deputies would have the ability to act properly to reduce any immediate threat or risk," Corson said.

Sen. Molly Baumgardner, a Louisburg Republican, noted that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle on the Joint Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice Oversight unanimously agreed to recommend the legislation heading into the session.

"For us to have both the Republicans and the Democrats to come together," she said. "We only found two things we could be unanimous on, and this is one of them."

The Kansas House is considering a similar bill, HB 2471. It is set for a hearing Monday.


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