We share the Buffalo school board president and district’s outrage and disgust that Erie County Youth Detention employees placed leg irons on an 8-year-old boy and left him shackled while he waited in Family Court to appear before a judge in February.
This unjustifiable action serves no purpose other than convincing that boy and others that there is no hope for the future. This is terrible. Shackling this young boy evokes outrage for good reason. Can anyone imagine someone so young being placed in leg irons?
School Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold cannot. She is a grandmother with children that age. And, like anyone hearing this story, she was upset.
The shackling occurred in mid-March but it took until this month for the Erie County to relax its policy on the use of restraints in Family Court for children under 13. Now, New York State should take the hint.
Before August, all juvenile delinquents in Family Court had their ankles shackled regardless of age or the nature of their offense, according to Erie County social services officials. Commissioner Marie Cannon explained that the practice is legal and common across the state.
That doesn’t make it right.
Some laws simply make no sense. One of those would be the one in which New York State determines the children who commit crimes can be considered juvenile delinquents as young as age 7. Cannon said it’s rare for any child under the age of 12 to be considered a criminal offender, adding her voice to those shocked that an 8-year-old would be in custody in the first place.
Perhaps New York State should join more than 30 others that have changed their laws on the blanket use of restraints on children appearing in court. Do what those other states did and take into account the 2015 recommendations from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Bar Association. Both organizations discourage the automatic use of hardware restraints on children in court unless the child poses a demonstrated safety risk to himself or herself or to others. That’s common sense.
Or, take the advice of Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin, who serves on the Bar Association’s Family Court Advisory and Rules Committee: “Young people are less likely to re-offend if they perceive that the juvenile justice system has treated them fairly.”
New York State has stubbornly not changed its law, even though there have been proposals introduced in the state Legislature over the past several years.
Some argue there may be times when leg restraints seem necessary on adolescents and teenagers who have become aggressive and even violent. Others argue that doing so only hardens these young people, opening the prison pipeline wider. Will Keresztes of the Buffalo school district has it right in insisting that restraining a child in that way requires a justifiable reason.
Keresztes, the school district’s chief of intergovernmental affairs, doggedly pursued the matter of the 8-year-old child. The School Board passed a resolution against the practice of “indiscriminate shackling of minor children in Family Court,” and forwarded it to elected officials, which included all Erie County legislators and Common Council members.
There is a good chance this deplorable incident will not be repeated. The county has changed its policy on transporting juvenile delinquents inside the Family Court building. County Executive Mark Poloncarz demanded the policy change. It’s time now for New York State to make the same change.