California youth advocates are fairly pleased with recommendations on use of pepper spray, shackling, visitation rights and vegetarian meal options for incarcerated youth that came from the Executive Steering Committee of the state Board of State and Community Corrections.
“This time around was historic; we are advocating for changes that have never been addressed before,” said Israel Villa, a formerly incarcerated youth. “My understanding is that the [board] usually goes with the steering committee's recommendations.”
Villa, the program and policy coordinator for the organization Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement, said he is hopeful the recommendations will be approved.
The committee held a panel with youth advocates last week in preparation for a Feb. 8, 2018 meeting, when the full board will vote on revising statewide regulations for incarcerated youth.
The committee recommended requiring that facilities must document the use of pepper spray on youth. Advocates had been hoping for a ban. California is currently one of five states that allow guards to carry pepper spray inside youth prisons.
Sara Kruzan, a formerly incarcerated youth and program coordinator at Healing Dialogue and Action, said this requirement is a step in the right direction, but that using pepper spray should not be tolerated.
“There is a double standard in place,” she said. “If your children got into a fight at school, it wouldn’t be acceptable to pepper spray them as a form of punishment. That would be considered abuse.”
Villa said the issue of pepper spray goes hand-in-hand with the issue of staff-to-youth ratios.
“If there were more staff members available, these facilities wouldn’t need to rely on pepper spray to handle altercations,” Villa said. “These are kids, and punishment doesn’t help their situations.”
Youth advocates proposed improving the staff-to-youth ratios, but the committee decided not to recommend action on that matter. Currently, the state requires one adult for every 10 youths during the day, and one adult to 30 youths during the night.
The committee also suggested new regulations that would prohibit the general use of shackles. Instead, the facility would be required to conduct individualized assessments before each use.
Kruzan said she is worried that this proposed regulation will fall short.
“I’m concerned about who will be making that discretion regarding shackles, and why we are still OK with shackles being used on our youth,” she said. “I can’t align myself with a system that treats youth in a way that doesn’t even match our values as a community.”
Executive Steering Committee meetings are designed to provide direction and focus to the revision process by identifying critical issues, providing direction to workgroups that propose revisions and making a final recommendation to the full board. The full board is expected to make a final decision on revisions to Juvenile Titles 15 and 24 regulations by April 2018.
Revisions to California’s regulations were last made in 2014, but there is no particular rule for when a state reviews its regulations for youth facilities, according to the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
The committee also suggested that facilities should be required to process requests for vegetarian meals, and supportive adults should not be barred from visiting incarcerated youth simply because of the adults’ conviction history.
Overall, Kruzan said these regulations should guide facilities to treat youth in a trauma-informed manner, rather than with a punitive approach.
“Anyone who is working with youth should be looking at the factors that contributed to their situations,” she said. “In my case, my trauma was never acknowledged and the phrase ‘child sex-trafficking survivor’ was never used. No one knew how to handle me, so I was criminalized.”
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U.S. states are rapidly removing Confederate statues, symbols of racial oppression. But there is another holdover from slavery that is prevalent in our society today — the routine use of shackling persons using handcuffs, leg irons and other hardware to confine individuals in the justice system.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to view a felony appellate courtroom in Casablanca, Morocco. These were appeals by people imprisoned for felony offenses who were asking the court to reduce their sentences. The people who were appealing — appellants — were brought in from prison and sat on benches behind a wooden screen. Their families sat on the other side of the court. One by one, the appellants were led to the front of the courtroom and directly addressed the judges, standing with dignity next to their lawyers.
What was remarkable was the fact that every person who stepped up to appeal their sentence was dressed in street clothes and unshackled. They stood respectfully before the appellate justices and were free to consult with their lawyers without the degradation of handcuffs, of leg irons, of belly chains and of prison uniforms.
The court resembled a U.S. traffic or civil court — not a felony criminal court.
The lack of prison uniforms and shackles dramatically changed the tone of the proceedings, serving as a reminder of the essential dignity of each of the persons appealing their sentence.
We observed a case of a young man in his early 20s appealing a 10-year sentence in a drug case. He was free to confer with his lawyer and to respond to questions by the court, without the interference of shackles on his hands or legs. The fact that he wore street clothes, not a prison uniform, served as an additional equalizer. A person who appears respectful and dignified in street clothes standing freely before the court seems a more likely candidate for early release from prison than a person in a prison uniform and shackled. The court subsequently reduced his sentence to four years.
In the United States, even children who are accused of a crime and confined in detention/prison appear in court in prison clothing and shackled with handcuffs. Leg irons and belly chains are frequently used along with handcuffs. Shackles are used in court from the first moment of the case — even before the trial and well before sentencing and appeal. A campaign by the National Juvenile Defender Center has convinced several states, including Illinois, to ban the use of handcuffs and shackles on children in courtrooms — but these instruments of human degradation are still used to transport children from detention to court.
Corporations that manufacture the hardware have convinced U.S. justice system officials that shackling individuals is essential for secure courtrooms and safe transport. A few decades ago, handcuffs alone were enough — but a consumer market was then developed for leg irons and belly chains and states rushed to invest in the “necessary” hardware. Shackling human beings is less than first world — and the experience in the Morocco felony courtroom demonstrates vividly that shackling is not essential to safety.
The racial legacy in the use of shackling is clear. One of our former staffers discovered that juveniles are not shackled in her home nation of Japan. A Japanese academic explained that this is a uniquely U.S. practice that is the legacy of slavery, the current iteration of the former use of “slave chains.”
Indeed, while the practice of shackling children is nearly universal in urban courtrooms filled with black and brown children from low-income neighborhoods, children from families of means who demonstrate similar “criminal” behavior have access to mental health and/or substance abuse treatment centers that generally do not use human shackling hardware, except in short-term “crisis” situations.
Testimony at a public hearing when Illinois considered adopting a Supreme Court Rule to end indiscriminate shackling of children in court included emotional comments from a former juvenile court judge. She noted that the use of shackles on children was common practice in her courtroom when she first came to the bench, and she didn’t think to challenge the practice.
In retrospect, she stated that she wished she had changed the policy — she recalled the horror on the faces of parents as they saw their child brought into the court in shackles and the shame on the faces of the children. Another lawyer argued there was no “safety” issue, as his experience with children shackled in the court system and children with similar issues who were not shackled in the mental health system convinced him that children could be safely transported and appear in court without shackles.
Respecting the human dignity of all individuals, including those accused/convicted of criminal offending, is essential to ensure a strong civil society. The use of shackles on human beings in the U.S. is the legacy of slavery — today’s slave chains. It is especially problematic given the profound racial disparities in our justice system. It is time to end this practice and extend to all our citizens — especially children — their human right to stand unshackled in our courtrooms.
Elizabeth Clarke of Evanston, Illinois, is founder and president of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a coalition working to transform the juvenile justice system in Illinois.