Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Children in Chains

As they consider ways to make juvenile offenders safer in state custody, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to clarify state policy on one controversial practice -- slapping leg irons and belly chains on youthful offenders, regardless of their age, physical strength or offense.

Lawmakers never officially approved the practice of shackling juveniles travelling to and from court. Yet it's common procedure in courthouses across the state -- even in circuits where adults accused of violent offenses are transported without the chains. Experts in juvenile justice lament the message the heavy shackles send to young offenders, many of whom are already terrified.

In September, the Florida Bar's Committee on the Legal Status of Children recommended that lawmakers make it clear that shackles are only to be used when a juvenile represents a clear physical threat, either to himself, guards or fellow offenders. A commission appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist reached the same conclusion last month, after hearing from psychologists who said the shackles serve to disorient and traumatize youth, making them distrustful and sending the message that they are little more than animals. Several circuits, including Miami-Dade, have dropped the practice; Public Defender Jim Purdy, whose circuit includes Volusia and Flagler, has asked local judges to make the same call.

The extensive testimony makes it clear: A one-size-fits-all policy on chaining children is unnecessarily cruel and could be counter-productive. The Legislature should put a stop to it.

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