MIAMI — Calling the widespread shackling of juveniles in court "repugnant, degrading (and) humiliating,'' the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday issued a new rule that forbids the restraint of juvenile offenders unless a judge finds that the youth is likely to be violent.
In a lengthy amendment to the rules that govern Florida's juvenile-court system, the state's highest court adopted the recommendations of a national advocacy group, the National Juvenile Defender Center, which argued that the wholesale shackling of juveniles in Florida was contrary to the purpose of rehabilitating youth.
The new rules reverse a longstanding practice in many courthouses -- including Broward and Palm Beach counties -- permitting juvenile defendants to be handcuffed or leg-shackled for all appearances, regardless of whether they are believed to be violent.
In Broward County, Public Defender Howard Finkelstein said, juveniles facing a court appearance are "paraded'' through the courthouse in handcuffs.
In September 2006, juvenile judges in Miami-Dade County agreed to a request from the Public Defender's Office to limit the use of restraints only to protect courtrooom staff from juveniles who are at risk of violence.
"We find the indiscriminate shackling of children in Florida courtrooms... repugnant, degrading, humiliating, and contrary to the stated purposes of the juvenile justice system and to the principles of therapeutic justice, a concept which this court has previously acknowledged,'' the high court wrote in an 18-page order.
Public defenders and children's advocates praised Thurday's decision, and administrators at the Department of Juvenile Justice vowed to work with judges and courthouse leaders throughout the state to put the new guidelines in effect.
``Anybody who has ever had a child, or even met a child, knows that it would be severely and emotionally traumatic to shackle a child and parade him through public corridors in a courthouse,'' Finklestein said. ``This decision by the Supreme Court leaves only one question unanswered: Does anybody at DJJ know anything about kids?''
Replied Frank Penela, a DJJ spokesman: ``I beg to differ. We are committed to the health, safety and well-being of the kids in our care.''
``DJJ will, of course, adhere to the Supreme Court's adoption of this new rule and it's provisions,'' Penela added. ``Our detention superintendents will coordinate with the respective juvenile court judges in each circuit for operational preferences -- and how the judges want this procedure to be implemented in their courtrooms.''