Even without COVID-19 claiming our undivided attention, this bit of news might have gotten little notice.
Children in shackles and black children in particular and in general claim public attention only for a short time, if at all. That alone might explain why it has taken nearly two years of pleading from Steven Teske to finally eliminate the indiscriminate use of shackles on kids in the courtroom.
As people like to remind me, they commit the vast majority of crimes.
Still, it’s worth noting, however late the news might seem, that the Georgia Supreme Court has spoken.
In a ruling issued early this month, the court came down on the side of the juvenile court judges, and more importantly in the best interests of children.
It seemed like something to celebrate, but Teske, chief judge of Clayton County’s Juvenile Court, told me he’s only “guardedly excited” about the decision.
Excited that there is a statewide rule, he said, but guarded because the rule doesn’t specify under what circumstances a kid may be restrained, leaving it to each of the state’s juvenile courts to decide.
“My experience with the practice of unshackling kids in court coupled with my nearly 21 years of serving as a juvenile court judge informs me with extreme confidence that there are only two reasons to use restraints on a kid during a court appearance,” Teske said. “They are if he is a serious flight risk and a serious risk to disrupt the proceedings.”
The only kids that have needed restraints, he said, have been those who attempted an escape from the detention center or caused a serious disruption, including a riot.
Last year, only three youths met that criteria. Three.
Despite being handcuffed, most of the kids who find themselves before a judge aren’t violent criminals, Teske said. Most are facing misdemeanor charges. Plus, in the nearly 30 states that restrict juvenile shackling, court business is conducted safely and efficiently.
But not everyone agrees with Teske.
A bill introduced in 2018 by Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver that would’ve banned shackling unless the judge considered a child dangerous didn’t even get a hearing.
Efforts to attach it to one of then–Gov. Nathan Deal’s juvenile justice bills failed, too.
“Entry of this Supreme Court order approving a new rule for juvenile courts to define when shackling of children in court might be appropriate is progress,” she said. “I am hopeful when this rule is implemented in July, further legislation will not be necessary.”
Last year, Rep. Mandi Ballinger, chair of the Juvenile Justice Committee, introduced House Bill 438 and got a hearing but wasn’t allowed a vote.
Oliver was hoping then that Georgia’s Council of Juvenile Court Judges would issue a rule itself. She still is.
That isn’t to say that council doesn’t support banning the use of restraints. It does and has unanimously passed a rule that presumes no use of shackles. The problem is the rule, like the Supreme Court ruling, doesn’t specify under what circumstances shackles can be removed and leaves it to each county judge.
Teske, a former president of the council, said last week he plans to begin talks with members of the Public Defender Council to make sure they guard against the unnecessary use of restraints.
“My concern is that courts may apply different approaches, creating a patchwork of restraint policies,” he said. “I am concerned, for example, that sheriffs will insist they do not have the manpower, believing that an unrestrained youth now requires an additional deputy, and that is pure and unadulterated nonsense.”
Not only have Clayton County and many other courts around the nation banned restraints in the majority of their proceedings, Teske said, except when there have been multiple co-defendants, but they also have never needed a second deputy in their courtrooms.
But it’s not his fellow judges that give Teske pause.
It’s sheriffs who he believes will wrongly conclude a child is a flight risk and that without restraints the court will need an extra deputy to accommodate this rule.
Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said as much.
“Sheriffs will have no option other than to assign more deputies to courtrooms,” he said in an email response. “This is of particular concern since many are presently unable to hire and retain deputies due to the dangers of law enforcement, low pay and poor benefits.”
Norris said he “respectfully regrets” the court’s decision and urges it to reconsider.
In addition to making the courts less safe, Norris said the ruling will “likely force sheriffs to reassign deputies from patrol, criminal investigations and other non-judicial functions in order to provide security for juvenile courts. This, of course, leaves county residents less protected.”
Teske called the sheriff’s response “utterly ridiculous logic and assumes facts that are not true.”
“To conclude they must hire additional deputies to accommodate this rule assumes the kids will attempt an escape or be disruptive, and it also assumes the deputies do not have the skill set to manage the supervision of an unrestrained youth who has not attempted any escapes, past or present.”
That has not been his experience, he told me.
He maintains that banning the indiscriminate use of shackling has little to do with decreasing safety in the courtroom. It’s about being smarter about how we treat kids.
With few exceptions, Teske said, the state’s juvenile court judges all agree it’s harmful to shackle kids in court when there is no evidence to support the need for shackles.
“That tells me that our judges want only what is in the best interest of our kids,” he said.
The next step is to figure out how to help judges apply this rule without undue interference from those sheriffs who claim they need more deputies in the courtroom, Teske said.
As he did in 2015, Teske suggested judges work collaboratively with their respective sheriff’s departments to come up with a “courtroom behavior contract” that they can support.
“I drafted an order banning the use of restraints with exceptions, but I did not sign it until (the sheriff) was convinced it was the right thing to do,” he said.
This is not a matter of resources or even how departments and courts differ. It’s about how we treat our kids and by default, their parents.
“Parents will not have to feel the pain of seeing their child in shackles, and the kids will not have to make that walk of shame from the holding cell to his seat in the courtroom,” Teske said. “It’s bad enough they put themselves in that shameful position, it’s not necessary to shame them anymore.”
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