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Editorials: Shackling juvenile defendants often unnecessary

File photo Handcuffs | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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The shackling of juvenile defendants with up to 25 pounds of metal is common in some Illinois courtrooms, despite growing calls for an end to the indiscriminate use of such restraints on children.

The state’s high court has issued clear rules about using shackles on adult Criminal Court defendants during trials. But no such clarity exists regarding far more fragile Juvenile Court defendants.

A proposed Illinois Supreme Court rule would rectify that, and a 2015 informal survey conducted for a group of criminal justice advocates proves such a rule is needed.

Across 18 Illinois counties surveyed, public defenders reported that children in four counties were routinely shackled at Juvenile Court appearances, said Illinois Justice Project Deputy Director Era Laudermilk.

In 10 counties, attorneys reported kids shackled for some but not all court appearances. Judges in other counties did not routinely shackle kids.

“There’s a gross disparity in practice,’’ Laudermilk said. “There’s definitely a need to have more uniform practices.”

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Juvenile shackles were unevenly used even in the same courthouse, Laudermilk said. Within the same building, attorneys talked of one judge who had a strict practice against them and another who routinely used them.

The findings come as mental health experts caution that shackling can have a traumatic effect on children. It can trigger a “freeze” reaction, interfering with a juvenile’s ability to listen adequately to proceedings or converse with a defense attorney. Or it can prompt a “flight” response, in which kids try to flee from their situations.

Being locked in handcuffs connected to belly chains or bound by the ankles with leg irons can be degrading, upsetting and stressful to anyone — let alone juveniles who are presumed innocent. For defendants this young, such restraints should be used only in the most extreme circumstances.

Under a proposed Illinois Supreme Court rule, such restraints could be used only if a judge determined a juvenile defendant posed a safety or flight risk. In such cases, only the least restrictive ones would be used during any Juvenile Court proceeding.

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia limit shackling of juvenile defendants. It’s time for Illinois to join that list.

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