Kids in chains: Advocates want indiscriminate shackling banned

Chief Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County’s 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

Last week, I introduced you to Steven Teske, chief judge of Clayton County’s Juvenile Court.

In 2015, you may or may not recall, Teske issued an order banning the use of shackles in his courtroom. That might seem like a radical idea, but it is no more radical than separating boys accused of crimes from hardened criminal adults back in the 19th century when activists realized the court ought to be focused on rehabilitation and function as a civilized body.

Every state adopted some version of that system, and it is Teske’s contention and I agree that every state ought to ban shackling of children.

I know the handcuffs suggest otherwise, but most of these kids are not violent criminals. Most are facing misdemeanor charges, Teske said. And one other thing, in the nearly 30 states that restrict juvenile shackling, court business is conducted safely and efficiently.

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

Teske told me that deputies used restraints last year only three times in his courtroom. Twice because the defendants had attempted escape. And once because a kid had caused a riot in the jail. In addition, he said, he has witnessed deputies interact differently with kids. They’re talking to them more, modeling for them good behavior.

Apparently not everyone agrees with Teske.

RELATED: A judge's push to unshackle kids in court

A bill introduced last year 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 former Gov. Nathan Deal’s juvenile justice bills failed, too.

This year, Rep. Mandi Ballinger, chair of the Juvenile Justice Committee, introduced House Bill 438 and got a hearing but wasn't allowed a vote.

“We’re making progress,” Oliver said. “It’s a bipartisan effort and I’m hopeful.”

Oliver is hoping, too, that Georgia’s Council of Juvenile Court Judges will issue a rule itself, but that may be a long shot.

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

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But let’s be clear. Members of the council do in fact support banning the use of restraints and have unanimously passed a rule that presumes no use of shackles. The problem is the rule 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 he is proud of his colleagues’ position, but he is also “concerned that allowing discretion on a county-by-county basis will create disparate inconsistencies in which some could swallow the rule, making it meaningless, and not by fault of the judge, but caused by the local politics.”

Some sheriff’s departments in rural counties, he said, fear the ban could tax their manpower or worse create a safety issue.

But 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. That’s why juvenile courts were created in the first place. Civic-minded women saw kids in shackles and were so troubled they started a petition back in the late 1800s.

Ironically, it’s civic-minded women like Oliver and Ballinger who want to see Georgia step up and ban the use of shackles. If you’re still struggling with why we need a diverse General Assembly, including gender, here’s your answer.

Teske said he wants children to really appreciate the meaning of the Constitution. It’s hard to convince them that they are presumed innocent until proven guilty with shackles on them.

RELATED: Clayton juvenile program becomes model for state reform

Why do this work?

“I believe that the due process that I am required to deliver on the bench is only so good as the work I do off the bench,” he said. “Judges sign orders. That’s our job. We tell people what to do. It’s my responsibly to draft an order that best serves that youth. That means that if I order a kid to a program, I have a responsibility to know that program and that it works. And if I know that that kid needs a program that we don’t have, I have the responsibility to go and get that program. It is through my basic obligations as a judge that I be an activist off the bench.”

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

As an activist judge, Teske hasn’t been without critics, but he knows there is a big difference between an activist judge who makes laws through their orders and one who works off the bench to actively make his bench better.

In that regard, Teske said the judicial canons do not restrict him but rather encourage all judges to promote the administration of justice.

That includes working to ban shackling in this state.

Teske has provided testimony to other state legislatures to remove shackles with success, including Utah, because he is convinced of its traumatic effect on kids, especially kids of color.

This may seem far-reaching for some, but it’s real for those who have hobbled into court in cuffs and the parents and grandparents who have to watch. Right now in this state, a 13-year-old picked up for theft by taking will enter the courtroom bound in chains. Seriously.

Our Legislature can change this. If there’s any doubt that it can work, look no further than Teske and Clayton County.

It’s time.

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