Practice of shackling youth offenders comes under scrutiny.

A group of Medford defense attorneys hopes to stop the practice of shackling children and teens when they appear in court to face criminal charges.

Attorney Christine Herbert, a member of the Jackson Juvenile Consortium, filed a motion asking that detained youths no longer be chained at the ankles when they appear in Jackson County Juvenile Court.

"I argue that shackling violates their constitutional rights to be considered innocent until proven guilty and that these kids shouldn't be treated as criminals," she said.

The Jackson Juvenile Consortium is a small group of defense attorneys who work with juvenile and family-related legal cases.

"Oregon's juvenile code focuses on rehabilitation," Herbert said, explaining that the laws are "really protective of kids" and the philosophy is different than in adult courts.

However, shackling children is still common around the state.

Jackson County juvenile authorities said that ankle chains are the easiest and least restrictive way to protect youths, staff and the public when youths in custody are moved outside locked areas of the detention center.

"We use them for all movement outside the secure area — medical appointments, counseling, court," said Joe Ferguson, deputy director of Jackson County Community Justice's juvenile division.

He said that shackling has been the department's standard practice for decades, likely started when youths accused of crimes had to be transported across town from a detention center on Medford's south side to a downtown courtroom.

In 2004 when the division moved in to its new 10th Street center, where courtrooms are just downstairs from the detention area, the practice continued. Ferguson said workers already were trained in using the shackles, which enable a relatively small number of supervising officers to effectively oversee groups of youths.

For example, three officers must supervise up to 12 youths on a busy morning of detention hearings, he said.

For such hearings, the young detainees come down in an elevator to a secure intake area, where they kneel on chairs while officers place chains on their ankles. Then they file across a hallway to a courtroom. The judge addresses the group, then they file out and sit in the secure hallway to wait to be called individually before the judge.

Ferguson said the shackles prevent fighting or other disruptions among the waiting teens, as well as thwarting any escape attempts.

"We haven't had issues because they are shackled," he said.

He said the leg chains are less restrictive than other combinations of handcuffs, shackles and belly chains. They allow kids to handle papers or sign documents if needed in court, as well as catch themselves if they fall while walking in chains.

Herbert acknowledges that Deschutes County uses leg shackles, handcuffs and a belly chain to restrain young offenders in court, but points out that Multnomah County no longer uses restraints unless needed. At the end of 2008, Linn County, which shackles youths while bringing them to and from the courthouse, decided to remove the leg irons once the youngsters are inside the building unless there is a specific risk of fight or flight, she said.

In her motion, Herbert argued that shackling is "unnecessarily restrictive" and Jackson County's use is overly broad, especially for courtrooms that are in the same building as the detention rooms and should be considered secure.

With deputies screening everyone at the front door and detention center workers and probation officers present in court, escape, violence or collection of contraband seems unlikely, she said.

"Youth face unnecessary shame and humiliation by being restrained in court," she wrote in support of her motion, citing testimony of a child psychologist who addressed the issue when Miami-Dade County defense attorneys successfully sought to stop shackling there several years ago.

Psychologist Marty Beyer claimed that shackling can undermine rehabilitation efforts and recovery from trauma, leaving youngsters feeling betrayed, ashamed and demeaned.

Citing Beyer, Herbert noted that shackles give youths a negative impression of the justice system and its fairness.

Herbert pointed out that adult defendants in Jackson County Circuit Court generally aren't shackled while in court, part of a tradition reaching back into common law that strives to prevent a jury from making conclusions based on appearances. Shackles, when used in transport, are removed before defendants enter the courtroom unless officials suspect they will become violent or try to flee.

Herbert would like to see a similar policy for the juvenile department.

"If a youth has exhibited violent or aggressive behavior or has a history of escape, then they should be shackled," she said. "They will get no resistance from me or any attorney on that, but that should be done on a case-by-case basis."

Her motion also noted that the consortium of defense attorneys only seeks to end shackling in the courtroom, taking no position on the use of restraints in transportation or other situations.

"I hope Jackson County can serve as a model for other counties," Herbert said, noting that how authorities restrain young offenders varies by county in Oregon.

Shackling young offenders remains common throughout the nation, although judicial and legislative efforts to end it have sprung up in California, Florida, North Carolina and Connecticut, the University of California Davis Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy reported last summer in an article about the debate.

Ferguson declined to comment on the motion, but his department has sought the assistance of the county counsel's office. A legal response is expected to be filed today.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.