Ridding itself of ties to a past now seen as barbaric and unjust, it is now illegal to place “shackles, handcuffs, irons and straitjackets” on children appearing before the New York family courts.
“The use of restraints on children is humiliating, traumatizing, stigmatizing, and permanently damaging into their adult life,” Democratic state Sen. Jamaal Bailey, the bill’s author, wrote in a public statement released last week. “The human cost of this failed approach to juvenile justice is simply incompatible with the rehabilitative intent of the justice system, with the burden falling most heavily on Black and brown communities.”
The law signed Oct. 8 by newly named Gov. Kathy Hochul adds a new section to the Family Court Act, and took effect immediately. It applies to anyone younger than 21 who appears before the family court for any type of hearing — delinquency, child welfare, custody or visitation.
For Karen Freedman, executive director of Lawyers For Children, the firm representing children in foster care, the new law simply ensures fairness. Youth advocates and legal experts within the New York court administration have long argued that when children appear before the judges in shackles, it undercuts their right to a presumption of innocence, and goes against the rehabilitative mission of juvenile courts.
The new law “represents an important step in ensuring that the New York State Family Courts provide a truly humane, respectful and antiracist judicial forum for administration of justice,” Freedman said in a statement.
Currently, New York along with more than 30 states and Washington, D.C., have enacted laws and court rulings limiting the shackling of youth in court, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.
New York’s legislation introduced by Senator Bailey of the Bronx is one of several proposed laws he has pushed that would reform the juvenile justice system. Preventing the use of hardware restraints on children in court, he said, would “remedy the harm that has been done to our young people, break the cycles of criminalization and incarceration and put our communities on the path of healing.”
There are limited exceptions under the new law. But exceptions will only apply when judges rule that a child appearing unshackled in court poses a risk of injury to the child or others, or would cause courtroom disruptions. The child must also have an opportunity to be heard by the judge before he or she rules on the matter.
Lucian Chalfen, a spokesperson for the Office of Court Administration, which oversees the New York court system, stated in an email that the use of restraints should only be used “where a likelihood of danger is shown.”
According to New York’s National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, there are clear and detrimental impacts to youth being restrained in court, particularly because the overwhelming majority have suffered childhood trauma. Negative impacts, legal and psychology experts say, are far-ranging, including mistrust of adults, anxiety and a sense of self that “may well push him or her into further criminality,” according to a legislative memo accompanying the New York legislation.
Legal advocates argue the use of shackles on children is also unconstitutional, violating due process rights. Because most youth appear in family court in response to non-violent crimes, physical restraints also can reinforce a perception of a child as dangerous and threatening. Groups including the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the National Association of Counsel for Children, the American Bar Association and the New York City Bar Association have all opposed the indiscriminate shackling of children in court.
The Office of Court Administration has repeatedly recommended to the state Legislature that the practice be upended. But the push for change only met success this year, after numerous failed attempts in prior legislative sessions.