I-Team: Shackles Coming Off Juveniles in Court - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Shackles Coming Off Juveniles in Court

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LAS VEGAS -- For the first time since anyone can remember, juveniles accused of a crime in Clark County are not wearing shackles in court.

For years, children have appeared with chains at their hands, waist and feet, a policy that applied to all of those accused, regardless of risk.

(Disclosure, this reporter first became aware of this practice during a law school class. She is not involved in the student project that contributed to the new policy, but has seen the impact that shackles have on some children -- good and bad.)

Although many in the system think it is time to unchain the children, they don't necessarily agree on how to do it.

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In a part of the family courthouse that most people never see, children wait in chains.

16-year-old high school sophomore "John" is accused of violating his probation by smoking marijuana.

"I'm not OK being here, but I'm here so I have to have them on," John said.

Standing before Judge William Voy at the 8th Judicial Regional Court, he appears for sentencing with his hands shackled to his waist.

"It's easier from a safety standpoint to have that restraint present," Voy said. "Is it the right thing to do, that's a different story."

For years, Voy and other juvenile justice officials have examined whether to stop the routine shackling of all kids.

Eliminating the practice is the trend nationwide, and in Nevada, only Clark County still chains its children.

But security concerns and personnel shortages usually ended the debate, until earlier this year when an article by a University of Nevada, Las Vegas law professor caught Voy's attention.

"The students were just like, ‘This is ridiculous,'" UNLV Boyd School of Law professor Mary Berkheiser said.

Berkheiser wrote about her students' attempts to unchain their young clients. As part of the law school's Juvenile Justice Clinic, they serve as student public defenders in the family court.

"It is as if they've already been adjudged guilty and the presumption of innocence applies in juvenile court as it does in adult court," she said. "But those kids don't feel innocent when they're walking in there with all those chains on."

Due in part to their efforts, individual determinations are being made based upon risk. For example, children with violent histories will remain in waist restraints, but leg irons are no longer being used.

"Everyone agrees this is the right thing to do," Voy said. "It's how do we accomplish it to maintain the safety of the kids and the staff and the public and the court?

To beef-up security in the courtrooms, Voy asked the county for four additional probation officers. County management said no and instead reassigned existing staff.

As of Monday, each judicial marshal has two probation officers for back-up when the chains are taken off children such as "John" before entering the courtroom.

Voy is still lobbying for the additional staff and the policies and procedures have yet to be published.

Not everyone is excited about this change.

Like adults, children in custody behave violently at times and a number of court personnel said they are concerned for their safety.

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