At 9:40 a.m. the first juvenile shuffled into Judge Jim Hill’s courtroom.
Silver cuffs hobbled his ankles between his jeans and mostly white Nike sneakers. Handcuffs bound his wrists that were hemmed in by a chain that encircled his waist.
The teen was one of five youths who shuffled into a Durham County courtroom that Monday morning with hand, waist and wrist restraints after being charged with offenses. In three cases the youths remained in full restraints during their hearings. In the other two, the judge allowed the handcuffs to be removed after their public defender requested it.
Hill says restraints help keep kids safe in courtrooms. But some attorneys and juvenile justice advocates have criticized Durham County’s routine practice of shackling youths, who can be as young as 6, being held in juvenile detention. They say restraints can cause long-term psychological damage in children, many of whom have already witnessed or experienced traumatic events.
Durham’s practice, among the most restrictive in North Carolina, might also be in conflict with state law, attorneys and advocates say.
“I think the basis of the (state) statute is to protect juveniles from having to deal with that kind of embarrassment of being brought in with these handcuffs,” said Hannah Emory, a public defender who represents juveniles in Durham County. “I don’t think that is something we necessarily want juveniles at such a young age to be made to feel like they are having to be restrained.”
Some say Durham needs to rethink how it handles juveniles in custody in a county where voters recently chose in a primary election a sheriff and district attorney who promised progressive reforms that take into consideration human and civil rights issues.
“I think it is an issue that probably will need serious discussion,” said state Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat and former Durham District Court judge and prosecutor. “Juvenile Court is not normally thought to be a public open hearing. That is what happens when you have not had much sunshine. Every once in while there needs to be a pause and a re-evaluation of how things are being done. With this new leadership coming in, maybe this is the time it happens.”
Practice differs county to county
The state juvenile justice system mostly serves youths accused of criminal offenses or disciplinary issues such as not going to school.
Juveniles, who under state law don’t have the right to bail, may be held in detention centers for a variety of reasons, including awaiting trial.
A 2007 state law says judges may only order restraints for juveniles appearing in court when necessary to maintain order, prevent escape or provide for the safety of the courtroom.
“Whenever practical, the judge shall provide the juvenile and the juvenile’s attorney an opportunity to be heard to contest the use of restraints before the judge orders the use of restraints,” the law states. “If restraints are ordered, the judge shall make findings of fact in support of the order.”
Since the law was passed, courtrooms have interpreted it differently, said Eric Zogry, the state juvenile defender.
“What we noticed was the actual practice could be very different from county to county,” he said.
In some of North Carolina’s largest counties, including Wake and Mecklenburg, youths are rarely shackled.
“I can tell you in Wake County there is a presumption that they come in with no types of restraints at all,” said Wake County Chief District Court Judge Robert B. Rader. “That is provided by state law.”
Judge Louis A. Trosch Jr., who oversees juvenile court in Mecklenburg County, said youths should be restrained while they are being transported, “but in the courtroom our deputies are generally able to manage the situation.”
Trosch said he ordered one juvenile to be restrained with handcuffs after she was aggressive during the trip to the courthouse, made threats toward the deputy before the hearing and had prior aggressive outburst in court and other settings. That day there were 18 detention hearings, and she was the only one shackled, the judge said.
“I told the girl … you are the first kid in about eight months I have shackled,” Trosch recalled. “It is rare that we shackle them.”
In Durham, the determining factor for whether youth will be restrained during court hearings is if they are being held in juvenile detention, said defense attorney Daniel Meier and other attorneys.
Hill and Judge Pat Evans hear most juvenile cases in Durham. Hill said he typically directs a court official to remove the handcuffs if a juvenile’s attorney makes the request.
“Juveniles can be impulsive, and it is for the safety of the juveniles more than anything else,” Hill said.
Evans, who did not return return phone messages, often allows handcuffs to be removed upon request, according to attorneys.
Hill is seeking re-election this fall. At a recent campaign forum, he recalled a years-old incident in which a juvenile tried to escape. The child ran out of the courtroom, jumped down a flight of stairs and continued his dash, despite suffering a broken ankle.
“That is why we fight wars with 18- and 20-year-olds — because they are going to charge that hill,” the judge said, adding that he prefers juveniles be in the courtroom for any discussions about restraints.
Hill’s opponent, Clayton Jones, said juveniles should not be restrained in court.
“You treat a child like an animal, they will behave like an animal,” Jones said. “We have to take those things off.”
Zogry, who oversees the quality of juvenile defense counsel statewide, said he believes the best practice is for judges and attorneys to have a hearing to decide whether shackles will be used before a juvenile appears in the courtroom.
‘Potential to do great harm’
Research indicates coming into a courtroom in restraints is “incredibly detrimental to the youth,” Zogry said.
North Carolina was among the first states to adopt laws or policies to end indiscriminate shackling of juveniles.
Now 31 states and Washington D.C. have laws or rules against the practice, following a push by juvenile justice advocates, said Christina J. Gilbert, senior staff attorney with the National Juvenile Defender Center.
Gilbert described Durham’s practice as “extreme.” Children should only be restrained only if there is actual evidence of an “imminent threat” to harm themselves or others, she said.
“In that case, even then,” Gilbert said, “there should be a hearing held on it.”
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the American Bar Association and the National Juvenile Defender Center have spoken against the practice, saying juveniles should wear restraints only in rare circumstances.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Child Welfare League of America also passed policy statements.
“Shackling of juveniles holds the potential to do great harm at this formative stage. Indeed, young people frequently describe the experience as making them feel like a criminal,” the American Orthopsychiatric Association said in a statement in 2015.
“I think one of the messages that has driven home throughout all of the tools that we have is that you know when we’re dealing with families and kids it’s different than dealing with adult defendants,” said Judge John Romero, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges’ president and a district court judge in Albuquerque, N.M.
Using shackles can re-traumatize youth who have experienced or witnessed abuse or violence, Romero said.
“I think that more and more we’re in the arena of being trauma informed to begin with but also being trauma responsive and to not use any form of shackles or restraints in the courtroom,” he said.
Romero said court officials and attorneys should have more training to understand the effects shackles can have on young people.
“Too often, in the heat of many cases and not enough time to do them all, we see in the system judges and attorneys alike and probation officers were interested in getting through the docket instead of making a positive impact on kids and their families,” Romero said. “So we need to slow down and think of what impact our decisions and our practices have long term on children.”