Erie County Adopts Policy Changes on Juvenile Justice Restraints “Raise the Age”

By Legislator April N. Baskin

The shackling or use of restraints on children in juvenile court proceedings is increasingly problematic as it requires children endure high levels of mental and emotional stress and can cause lasting damage to their mental health.

Both the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the American Bar Association have requested that states and other levels of government involved in the juvenile justice system review their policy of shackling or using restraints on children in juvenile court hearings. In 2014, at the request of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ohio State Supreme Court reviewed this policy after a lawsuit was filed against a county which handcuffed the wrists and shackled the legs of a 14 year old girl with no prior record of offense.

Since that time, several states have re-examined their policies on the shackling of minors and have adopted new, improved policies which requires on the record testimony justifying shackles before they can be used on youthful offenders in proceedings. Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Washington have re-examined their youth court policies and made significant progress in reinstating best practices for rehabilitative justice in their systems. In Boulder County, Colorado a joint task force which included representation from the courts, public defender’s office, the district attorney, and the county commissioners was formed to continue oversight on the youth justice system.

In New York, Democratic State Senator Tim Kennedy and Republican State Senator John Bonacic introduced legislation to eliminate the shackling of children under the age of 21 unless it is the least restrictive means possible to prevent self-harm, harm to someone else, or disruptive behavior in the court. A similar bill was introduced in the State Assembly by Assemblyman David Gantt.

In addition, resolutions adopted at the county level nationwide have had positive impacts on their respective juvenile court systems.

Locally, in February 2018, a third grader in the Buffalo Public School system appeared in Erie County Family Court with his legs shackled under then existing County security protocols. Shortly thereafter, concerns were raised about the county’s policy on restraining youthful offenders. In June 2018, the Buffalo Board of Education adopted a resolution discouraging the use of leg-cuff within the county’s family court system.

Upon learning about the concerns and issue, I became involved and held discussions with the Buffalo Public Schools and the county’s Department of Social Services and its Youth Services Division which oversees the county’s Secure Youth Detention Facility which certain juvenile offenders are housed. Following our discussions and meeting, and a review of their protocols, the county decided to revise their policy on using leg cuffs.

Earlier this summer, I shared my concerns with Sandra Tan from the Buffalo News, detailing my belief that we use this system to rehabilitate and not further discriminate or punish struggling children by further humiliation when they should come to expect fairness and justice under the law.

We know from a long-term study on adverse childhood events (ACE’s) conducted by the CDC that child offenders are often victims of abuse themselves. Children who are abused have an almost 60% chance of being arrested as juveniles – the likelihood of them harboring violent tendencies increases by 30% if they are previous victims of trauma. As a mother and a former educator, it is my strong belief that we should not continue to criminalize our youth; these children need mental and emotional intervention that prisons cannot provide. Leg shackling prolongs and creates additional unnecessary trauma that only adds time to their recovery.

I would like to thank Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Social Services Commissioner Marie Cannon for listening and for their leadership on this issue, including their willingness to examine long-standing county policy and change the policy.

In my legislative resolution from August 2018, I offered support to Senators Kennedy, Bonacic, and Assemblyman Gantt’s state legislation concerning restraints on youthful offenders appearing before family courts. For more information, you can view my complete resolution on the Erie County Legislature home page, entitled “Opposing the Use of Restraint Devices on Non-Violent Children in Family Court”. There is more work that can be done across the state on the issue of youth restraints family courts, but this is a good start.

As chair of the Legislature’s Public Safety Committee, I am committed to justice, fairness and equality for all of the members of our community.

With support from New York State, Erie County is also implementing the “Raise The Age” initiative concerning 16 and 17 year old offenders. Under this state initiative, offenders aged 16 and 17 will no longer be detained and processed through the adult criminal justice system, and will instead, proceed through the family court system.

Particularly violent offenses can still be tried in adult courts, but for the majority of misdemeanor crimes, teens will appear in family court which is more equipped to deal with youthful offenders and provide rehabilitative measures for them.

This is proof that collective dialogue, like that which has taken place between the Buffalo Public Schools and the Erie County Department of Social Services, can help right injustices and start to heal the deep wounds sometimes left by our criminal justice system.

I am elated that we in government could work together in this endeavor, with the support of the New York State, to ensure our detained juveniles are managed appropriately and afforded the due process they deserve.