The arrest of her son for a schoolyard fight was devastating enough; Giselle Sanchez was horrified when she watched the 15-year-old, his wrists handcuffed and his ankles shackled, shuffle into his first juvenile-court appearance, reports the Orlando Seninel. “He’s a child, not an animal,” Sanchez said. “Why is he in chains?” The same question has haunted lawyers with the Miami-Dade Public Defender’s Office. Yesterday, they acted to unshackle the children who appear in their courtrooms. If they are successful, their tactic is likely to spread across the state. The defenders argue that Florida’s practice of routinely chaining children during court hearings — regardless of their age, size, alleged offense, or likelihood of misbehavior or escape — is psychologically abusive and counter to the rehabilitative goals of the juvenile-justice system.
Asking judges to halt the “degrading and unlawful” practice in Miami-Dade County, the lawyers filed motions on behalf of each youngster who appeared in juvenile court for detention hearings. A judge granted them, saying he, too, disagreed with cuffing kids in the courtroom unless the child was a known security risk. Many judges say the restraints are necessary, especially in jurisdictions where juveniles attend hearing in groups rather than individually. “It would be extremely dangerous [to remove the restraints,]” said Maura Smith, administrative juvenile judge in Orange and Osceola counties. “If just one kid is off, it could ignite the whole group. He could get a gun from a deputy. With the facilities we have and the lack of funding, it’s a security issue.” She and other judges said that because juveniles are tried by judges, not juries, the restraints do not prejudice the child’s presumed innocence.