After media report, Durham judge says he will stop routine practice of shackling children

Jim Hill
Jim Hill

Durham County’s chief district court judge said in a statement Monday that he will stop the routine practice having juveniles wear restraints in his courtroom, just days after media reports highlighted the issue.

The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun recently published an article in which some attorneys and juvenile justice advocates criticized the use of restraints for children who have been detained and appear in court in Durham.

Critics of the practice say shackles can cause long-term psychological damage for children, many of whom have already experienced trauma in their lives. They also say Durham’s practice could violate state law.

Judge Jim Hill, the chief judge, had said he ordered restraints for juveniles for their own safety. But in his statement Monday, he said he would change course.

“As a general rule, juveniles will no longer enter my courtroom in restraints,” Hill wrote “If the court is led to believe that restraints in the courtroom are necessary, I will then conduct a hearing to determine if restraints are indeed necessary and outline the findings of facts. “

Attorneys and juvenile justice advocates said Durham County’s practice of shackling youth, who can be as young as 6, was among the most restrictive in North Carolina. Judges in Wake and Mecklenburg counties say they rarely bring juveniles into their courtrooms in shackles.

Stakeholders in the juvenile justice system will be invited to discuss a permanent policy for Durham County, Hill said in the statement. “As I have always said, I am always open and available to discuss concerns of what we do in the Durham County Court system.”

Each judge has the discretion to follow their own policy in their courtrooms, according to the law, Hill said.

Passed in 2007, the law says judges may only order restraints for juveniles appearing in court when necessary to maintain order, prevent escape or provide for the safety of the courtroom.

Prior to the media reports last week, Hill said in the statement, he was never notified about concerns regarding the procedure.

“No one from the District Attorney’s Office, no one from the Public Defender’s Office, no defense attorneys or other court officials raised a concern with me,” Hill said.

Hill also said he didn’t want this to be a last-minute campaign issue and criticized the media’s use of a 2003 photo of a shackled youth that wasn’t taken in Durham County.

Hill also said the juvenile court system deals with serious charges, including rape, murder and other violent crimes.

“Every District Court Judge is challenged with protecting the rights and safety of the accused juvenile as well as members of the court system and general public,” Hill said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges
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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.