Michigan Supreme Court Limits Shackling of Children in Court


The Michigan Supreme Court issued a new court rule last week that bars the use of handcuffs, shackles, and other restraints on juveniles during a court proceeding except in limited circumstances.

“Indiscriminate shackling of juveniles is a practice to be avoided when it does not jeopardize the safety of the courtroom,” Justice Megan Cavanagh wrote in support of the rule. “It has been shown that shackling causes unnecessary stress and is harmful to juveniles and their families because it causes shame and humiliation.”

Studies show that indiscriminate shackling unnecessarily humiliates, stigmatizes, and traumatizes youth, impedes the attorney-client relationship, impairs juveniles’ constitutional right to due process, dilutes the presumption of innocence, and contradicts the rehabilitative ideals of the juvenile court.

Last year, Michigan’s shackling of youth was highlighted in a ProPublica investigation about Grace, a 15-year-old Black teenager from suburban Detroit who was arrested and incarcerated for violating her probation by failing to do her online schoolwork during the pandemic.

ProPublica reported that Grace was brought to a court hearing in June 2020 with her wrists handcuffed together and ankles shackled—even though there was no evidence she posed a risk of physical harm or flight. She could barely turn the pages of a statement she’d written, according to the report.

“The humiliation and trauma of shackling my child has harmful effects that we will never be able to forget or reconcile as humane and appropriate treatment,” Grace’s mother said after learning about the new court rule. “This traumatic experience is the legacy of discrimination in America and is especially damaging to youth of color. It resembled unforgettable images of slaves on the auction block.”

Michigan joins Washington, D.C., and 31 other states that have prohibited or limited the shackling of youth in courts through legislation or court rules, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center.

Michigan’s new rule specifies that restraints cannot be used unless the court determines before the youth is brought to court that restraints are necessary for one of three reasons: to prevent physical harm to the youth or others; because the child has a history of disruptive courtroom behavior; or there is a substantial risk that the youth will flee the courtroom.

The court must allow the young person’s attorney to be heard and the rule requires that trial judges state their factual findings on the record or in writing.

The court rule garnered overwhelming public support, Justice Cavanagh observed. Juvenile justice and disability rights advocates, the ACLU of Michigan, and the Michigan Psychological Association were among the groups that supported the rule, according to ProPublica.

Justice Cavanagh underscored that the new rule will balance interests in courtroom safety with the need to ensure that “juveniles who interact with Michigan’s justice system are not subjected to physical, mental, and emotional trauma or judicial bias as a result of being shackled.”

Two of the court’s seven justices, David Viviano and Brian Zahra, opposed the change, as did the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office and the Oakland County family court, which argued that law enforcement should decide when a child should be shackled, ProPublica reported.