A judge’s push to unshackle kids in court

Shackles bind the legs of a 10-year-old girl who was being held on a number of charges, including running away and prostitution, during a November 2000 hearing in Fulton County Juvenile Court before Judge Nina R. Hickson. AJC FILE PHOTO

Shackles bind the legs of a 10-year-old girl who was being held on a number of charges, including running away and prostitution, during a November 2000 hearing in Fulton County Juvenile Court before Judge Nina R. Hickson. AJC FILE PHOTO

Watching black kids enter his court was nothing new to Judge Steven Teske. Watching them enter shackled, shuffling across the floor wasn’t new either. After nearly 10 years as chief judge of Clayton County Juvenile Court, it was like watching the sun rise.

Familiar and frightening.

But as the scene unfolded once more a few years ago, Teske was struck by the cries of an elderly grandmother as she watched her grandson, facing burglary charges, hobble to a chair.

“I got teary-eyed and turned my chair around to compose myself,” he said.

After the proceedings that day, Teske, as he is known to do, exited the bench and approached the woman still seated with other members of her family.

The woman thanked Teske for releasing the young man and extended her arms to hug him.

What was it that got you so emotional when he came out? he asked her.

Seeing him in those chains, she said. It reminded me of slavery days.

Other people might have been able to return to business as usual, but there was no way for Teske to do that.

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That evening talking to his wife, he held an image of a slave block in his mind, white men buying and selling human beings, and imagined what it might be like to wear that grandmother’s shoes and he knew the grandmother was right. What happened in his courtroom that day, no every day, felt like slavery.

Steven Teske, chief judge of Clayton County Juvenile Court, is widely known for his leadership on juvenile justice issues in Georgia and nationwide, including banning the use of shackles in Juvenile Court. GRACIE BONDS STAPLES / GSTAPLES@AJC.COM

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As the great-grandson of a slave owner, Teske still held the deed to a 16-year-old slave girl that numbered even her teeth.

“I keep it to show folk how African Americans were treated like cattle,” he said.

He has kept that grandmother and her cries in his heart all these years to remind him why it’s just as inhumane to shackle children, the vast majority of whom are African American, in court, a practice Teske changed in his courtroom years ago. He has been working ever since to change the practice in Georgia and across the country. He solicited help from a state representative last year to sponsor a bill that would have banned shackling of children. That bill stalled, but a new one was introduced this year.

“Having that history in my head created that perfect storm in that moment of life,” he said. “I can only as a default explanation give the credit to God. I do believe it was a spiritual moment.”

Me, too.

Teske began researching the issue and uncovered studies that show that trauma like that experienced during slavery can be passed down genetically in DNA.

“I’ve come to believe that that grandma, though she may not have experienced slavery directly or didn’t experience being in chains or whipped, still felt the trauma,” he said. “I believe that.”

Teske started to imagine how he might make amends.

The judicial system, he said, had worked hard to be a trauma-informed court. If he were confident that the indiscriminate use of shackling, especially on black youths accused of minor crimes, is a trigger to black families, he had a duty to remove that trigger.

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Teske drafted an eight-page order banning the use of shackles or restraints unless it could be shown by evidence that having no restraints would place the safety of others at risk.

Before signing it, he called Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill to curry his support and travel with him to Dade County, Florida, where shackling, thank God, had already been banned.

Georgia is among the states that still permit indiscriminate shackling of youths in court. CONTRIBUTED BY NATIONAL JUVENILE DEFENDER CENTER

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“We went down there and he asked a lot of questions,” Teske remembered. “We heard them address the young people about their behavior, and on the promise of their good behavior, the restraints would come off. One by one, as hearings were done, they removed the restraints and walked them into the courtroom.”

It became clear to Teske that court officials there weren’t just applying the rules of fairness but living and breathing it in the courtroom so that people felt that the person applying the rules was truly fair.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On the plane back home, Hill leaned over. Your honor, I drank your Kool-Aid, he said. When can we start?

Back home, Teske gathered sheriff’s deputies and other juvenile justice officials for training, and in 2015 the indiscriminate use of shackles in Clayton County’s Juvenile Court ceased.

Teske could’ve left off there, but the heart his mother gave him wouldn’t let him. The appearance of justice, he said, is critical to creating law-abiding communities. A child in chains is not what justice looks like.

Come back Tuesday and I’ll tell you about the fight he has been waging to right this wrong in our state and our nation and why we ought to rush to support him.

Our children’s health and well-being depend on it. Justice demands it.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.