Juvenile Defense Practice: Small Steps Can Have Ripple Effects, One Case at a Time

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Tamar-Birckhead-new-head-shotRecently I was in juvenile delinquency court in North Carolina with one of my clients, whom I’ll call Alexis. The 13-year-old African-American girl had just heard from the judge that she would continue to be detained in a juvenile jail as she awaited placement in a residential facility for treatment of her mental illness. Alexis had originally been charged months earlier with a minor misdemeanor resulting from an incident at school. Since then, she had repeatedly left home for days at a time and stopped taking her medication, necessitating — the judge, prosecutor and probation officer all believed — some form of detention. From a juvenile defense perspective, Alexis admittedly had few options, as her mother did not have the financial means to keep her secure and safe at home while we waited for a bed to open up in the treatment facility.

Alexis had already been held for nearly six weeks, and she was understandably upset to learn that she would continue to be detained. Her eyes were filling with tears, and she knew that she couldn’t contain her feelings of frustration in this very public forum.

Alexis stood up from her chair at counsel table and said loudly that she wanted to leave the courtroom and go back to the cell block to calm down. The judge seemed to understand and nodded her head.

Alexis was not in handcuffs, but her ankles were shackled together with leg irons. Although North Carolina law requires a judge to find that physical restraints in the courtroom are "reasonably necessary to maintain order, prevent the juvenile's escape, or provide for the safety of the courtroom," in many of North Carolina’s counties leg irons are routinely placed on juveniles arriving for court appearances from a detention center without judicial findings.

A review by The Center on Children and Families (CCF) at the University of Florida Levin College of Law indicates that juvenile courts in 28 states regularly shackle detained juveniles during court appearances. CCF's observation study of Florida juvenile courts has found that most juveniles, regardless of the charge or the hearing result, were compliant in the courtroom and that courtroom behavior was no different regardless of whether they were shackled.

As Alexis walked from the middle of the courtroom to the door leading back to the cells, the court officer began to place his hands on her.

“Don’t touch me,” she said.

The officer did not reply and firmly put his hands on her arm and her shoulder.

“Don’t touch me,” she said again, backing away from him.

Stunned, I watched as the officer then put his arm around Alexis’ neck in a tight grip and pulled her — a small, thin girl — out of sight and toward her cell.

He pulled her like she was a dog.

He pulled her like she was nothing.

After they left the courtroom, the rest of us sat in silence, hearing her cries on the other side of the metal door.

I have since learned that the court officer was not disciplined for his actions. On the contrary, he took out a criminal complaint against 13-year-old Alexis for resisting, delaying or obstructing an officer in the midst of his duties, a criminal offense under North Carolina law. The matter is pending, and I'm hoping that a delinquency complaint does not ultimately issue against Alexis.

This one episode in juvenile court, a single snapshot of the often heartbreaking scenes that occur there, raises more questions than it clarifies. Why was Alexis shackled when there was no evidence that it was "reasonably necessary" to maintain order or prevent her escape? Why had she been confined in a punitive setting for weeks at a time when she desperately needed mental-health treatment in a therapeutic setting? If Alexis had been white and middle class, would her treatment by the court system have been different? For those of us who work with youth, the myriad of challenges that our clients face can become overwhelming, even to us.

I try to learn from such incidents, however, and renew my commitment to rigorous advocacy. The next time Alexis or another client is brought to the courthouse from the detention center, I will insist that all shackles, including leg irons, be removed before she enters the courtroom and that the judge make written findings if my request is denied. This one small shift in my practice has parallels outside the courtroom as well, as a renewed commitment to advocacy by those who work with youth in other settings can also make a difference. Such a shift may not bring about systemic change, but it could have a ripple effect, which is often all that any of us can accomplish.

Tamar Birckhead is a criminal defense attorney, law professor and director of clinical programs at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.