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Contra Costa seeking alternative to shackling during transport of juveniles

on October 30, 2015

Early one morning in downtown Martinez, a green sedan bearing the Contra Costa County seal pulls up to the curb in a designated parking place on Ward Street, a few steps away from the side entrance to the Wakefield Taylor Courthouse.

An armed guard gets out of the driver’s seat, walks around back and opens a rear car door. He helps a young man, perhaps high-school age, in a beige prison suit get out of the car and up the stairs into the courthouse. The young man takes quick stutter-steps. His ankles are shackled, his hands are cuffed in front of him, chained to his waist.

A similar scene happens throughout the morning as more kids emerge for their day in court, transported in shackles from juvenile hall. Anyone watching would assume these are dangerous criminals.

In fact, they are children, in the eyes of the legal system, which emphasizes rehabilitation and avoids public display of punishment or criminal status for juvenile offenders. The indiscriminate use of handcuffs, shackles and waist restraints runs counter to this philosophy, critics say.

Representatives of the county probation department, the agency responsible for housing and transporting juvenile offenders, said they are looking for a better way to get minors to their court dates, but insist there’s no easy fix. Because the county’s juvenile hall in Martinez, has only one courtroom, many juvenile hearings are held in the Superior Court downtown, about an 11-minute journey from the hall, according to Google maps.

The probation department’s policy is to shackle all juveniles during transport.

Phil Kader, the head of the department, said that an administrative tool to assess the flight or security risk of a juvenile while being transported does not yet exist. He said restraints are used for the kids’ safety and own best interest.

“We don’t want any of the youth to get harmed or have them run away because that would be another charge they would have to face,” he said.

Wearing restraints, especially publicly, is physically and emotionally painful for young people. Incarcerated youth put this in their own words in The Beat Within, a bi-monthly publication founded in San Francisco in 1996, which includes first-person writings under nicknames or pseudonyms:

It feels very bad to be in handcuffs, like you’re a killer or something…. it’s really embarrassing ‘cause everybody is watching and looking at you—E, Alameda.

Being cuffed makes you feel less of a person—Jr, Santa Clara.

When I’m shackled from my waist to my ankles I think, “Is this necessary?  Am I dangerous?”—Unknown and shackled, Santa Clara.

The cops act like we are some big criminals if only they know that everyone makes mistakes. Every time I get shackled up, my ankle starts to hurt and it looks like I’m walking like a damn penguin. I don’t deserve to be treated like that unless I act crazy or resisting….. I wanna be set free and be treated like a human being—Jazzy R, Santa Clara

Critics claim that the indiscriminate use of restraints, particularly when youth are out in public wearing shackles, is damaging and unnecessary. Until recently, probation department drivers carrying minors would park their vehicles in a lot across the street from the Martinez courthouse. The designated curb stop was created amid complaints that the long walk amounted to an unnecessary humiliation.

Sue Burrell, staff attorney for the Youth Law Center, a San Francisco nonprofit advocacy group, is trying to reform the Contra Costa probation department’s policy.

This August, Burrell wrote an article highlighting the use of shackling in the Huffington Post, and the Youth Law Center sent a letter to the probation department demanding an immediate end to the practice of indiscriminately restraining minors while transporting them to court.

The letter argues that many of the minors do not pose any violent threat and are in detention for minor offenses such as possession of marijuana, disturbing the peace and technical parole violations. Citing 2014 data, the center noted that only 17 percent of Contra Costa youth in detention were being held for violent offenses.

During an interview, Burrell described the practice of indiscriminate shackling while in transport as a “one-size-fits-all solution, based on administrative convenience, rather then a need to shackle children because they are dangerous.”

“In a system that is supposed to be supportive and rehabilitative, it treats every child like they are a dangerous animal and they aren’t,” she said.

Related controversy has arisen nationally concerning use of solitary confinement in youth detention centers. In Contra Costa County, the probation department changed its policy on the use of solitary confinement in May as part of a legal settlement.

Two advocacy groups, called Disability Rights Advocates and Public Counsel, had filed a lawsuit on behalf of behalf of youth in Contra Costa Juvenile Hall. The lawsuit alleged that some youth with disabilities were kept in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day.

While that issue has gotten more attention, it’s clear that transport policies also are generating controversy. Contra Costa County Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said during an interview that she found the county’s policy offensive.

“When you see it, it just brings to mind a chain gang,” she said. “It’s reminiscent of slavery.”

Liptezky said risk needs to be considered before restraining minors, suggesting “there has to be less restrictive and more humane ways to transfer these people.”

Kader, head of the probation department said he has met with both the Youth Law Center and Lipetzky several times to work on a solution to the issue. The probation department has enlisted two criminal justice experts, Barry Krisberg from the University of California at Berkeley and Edward Latessa of the University of Cincinnati, to help develop a risk assessment tool for transportation.

Such a tool would take into account the nature of a minor’s offense and their behavior in juvenile hall, among other factors. Kader said he is hoping to start trying out this new tool soon.

“We have the opportunity to be the first county to come up with a meaningful evidence-based tool to determine how youth should be transported,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to break new ground.”

1 Comment

  1. Noe Gudino on November 3, 2015 at 9:33 am

    I was one of these teens being shackled and being also on solitary confinement. I feel it’s degrading and unjust, that teens “supposedly” being rehabilitated is subject to public shame. The wobbling in shackles like a penguin seems to condition youth, and to forcefully make the youth accept his or she’s crime like a badge. I can’t wait till this system is rightly corrected.

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