Indiscriminate youth shackling continues in Houston

by | Apr 11, 2019 | Criminal Justice, Houston

Thirteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against shackling defendants in court, arguing that the move violated due process.

Despite that major ruling, children going through the U.S. criminal justice system do not have the right to be unshackled in court, unlike their adult counterparts.

As of 2018, Texas is among 32 states in the U.S. without a ban on indiscriminate juvenile shackling, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center, a nonprofit that has worked on the issue for decades.

In testimony gathered by the NJDC, restrained children described feeling like animals, criminals, or slaves. Some said it made it difficult to work with their attorneys. Others said they couldn’t concentrate or express themselves.

“What I still think about today, nearly five years later,” wrote one Maine teenager reflecting on her experience, “is the humiliation and shame I felt being in public view, weighed down by loud, metal shackles.”

“I felt as if everyone looked at me as if I were some crazed criminal or an animal, not what I really was, a 12-year-old child,” she said.

Brett Merfish, a spokesperson with Texas Appleseed, a public interest justice center that has also advocated against the practice for years, told the Texas Signal there is no reason to make a child go through an experience like that, especially if they don’t pose a danger to themselves or others.

“The point of the juvenile system is to be rehabilitative,” Merfish said. “When we are treating kids like criminals, treating them like they’re guilty, we’re creating trauma and we’re injecting bias.”

In practice, judges have allowed defendants to be free of handcuffs while in court for hundreds of years. Published in 1769, Sir William Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Laws of England” recommended prisoners be brought to court “without irons, or any manner of shackles or bonds, unless there be evident danger of an escape…”

Likewise, for most of U.S. history, shackling minors in court was the exception, not the rule. But in the 1980s that unspoken rule began to change when, according to the NJDC, “public policy embraced a more punitive approach to juvenile crime” and in-court youth shackling began to rise in frequency.

In Texas, Merfish said rules for presumptively shackling youth in court varries county by county, and especially by individual courts. She said some counties in Texas were ahead of the curve, like Dallas County, Tarrant County, Williamson, and Travis.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the judge,” Merfish said, noting that in some courts in Harris County, minors were being shackled during detention hearings.

For the past two legislative sessions, a bill to end the practice has been floating around the Texas House of Representatives. The bill’s author, Gene Wu, D-Houston, filed the bill again this year.

If successfully passed, House Bill 4267 would make Texas the thirty-third state to ban in-court youth shackling (with some exceptions for safety). Additionally, the bill would also allow minors to pick out their own clothing for court appearances, instead of having to rely on a uniform given by a correctional facility.

“We need to be smarter on crime instead of just looking tough,” Wu said when he originally introduced a version of the bill three years ago. “Every kid makes mistakes big and small, it’s a part of growing up.”

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