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UMaine law students help amend juvenile shackling law

On Oct. 19, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ratified an amendment that would make it illegal to use physical restraints on juvenile offenders in the courtroom, unless it is necessary or priorly ordered by the court.

This is good news for a group of student attorney’s at the University of Maine School of Law, who worked tirelessly to change the use of shackling in juvenile cases. Starting in the summer of 2013, student attorneys at the Juvenile Justice Clinic, a clinic of the UMaine School of Law, started their campaign to end “indiscriminate shackling.”

The Juvenile Justice Clinic offers student attorneys hands-on work in a number of areas in juvenile policy. Student attorneys will serve as juvenile defenders or Guardians ad litem, a person the court appoints to represent the best interests of the child in a number of legal settings.

“[Some of] my work was focused on bigger policy issues surrounding the just and fair administration of juvenile proceedings and overall treatment of juveniles in courts,” Betsy Boardman, a student attorney at the Juvenile Justice Clinic, said. “Duties as a student attorney included meeting with clients, writing motions and other court documents, and representing clients in court proceedings.”

This issue was addressed by 17-year-old Skye Gosselin, of Waterboro, in a Kennebec Journal column on May 2.

“I strongly believe a law that says the handcuffing and shackling of juveniles in the courtroom is a bad idea unless it is absolutely necessary,” Gosselin wrote.

Gosselin appeared in court when she was 12 years old for a disorderly conduct charge. When she arrived at the courthouse, she was put in handcuffs and shackles. Again, two years later, she was shackled after she violated her probation by skipping school.

“I felt as if everyone looked at me as if I were some crazed criminal or an animal, not what I really was, a 12-year-old child,” Gosselin wrote. “The dehumanizing experience shaped not only how others saw me, but how I saw myself for many years.”

Boardman said that the bravery shown by Gosselin in telling her story publicly, along with other factors, helped the passing of the amendment

“The effort to end indiscriminate juvenile shackling had supporters from all areas including psychologists, defense attorneys, and, as was the case with Skye, juveniles who had been detrimentally affected by the use of shackles in court,” Boardman said. “I do think that hearing a real life account from a 16 year old and how the experience still haunts her today was very powerful.”

Prior legislation in the area was vetoed by Gov. Paul LePage, but in this new amendment, the goal was reached. Professor Christopher Northrop, who oversees the Juvenile Justice Clinic, was proud of his student attorney’s follow-through despite a number of setbacks.

“There were a number of hard-fought victories and frustrating setbacks along the way, but our students persevered,” Northrop said in a Nov. 10 press release. “They set out with a comprehensive agenda to change the culture around shackling children, and that is exactly what they have achieved.”

While the new law prevents arbitrary use of shackles on juveniles, shackling will still be used in extraordinary circumstances. The amendment states that shackles will be used if the present or past behavior of the juvenile presents a reason to believe they would be violent in the courtroom.

The amendment became effective on Nov. 1.

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