Maine juveniles in custody can now enter courtrooms shackle-free thanks to a rule change in the state court system.
The change comes after a two-year effort by students at the University of Maine School of Law who actively opposed the practice.
When an adult appears in criminal court in Maine, they have the right under federal law to appear without restraints such as shackles, unless there are special circumstances. But that law hasn't necessarily applied to juveniles, and it's something that Betsy Boardman witnessed firsthand while representing young defendants as a student at the University of Maine School of Law.
"It obviously hit close to home in the state of Maine when we were seeing kids being brought into court in leg shackles, belly chains, and handcuffs for issues as minor as missing a court date or school attendance," she says.
More than half a dozen national organizations — including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the National Counsel of Juvenile and Family Court Judges — have policy statements that call for limits on the use of shackles on juveniles, because of the trauma it can cause.
Boardman says the practice goes against a core goal of the juvenile justice system, which is to rehabilitate.
"Kids would describe it as demeaning, humiliating, stigmatizing these kids as criminals," she says.
So in 2013, Boardman and other students in the School of Law's Juvenile Justice Clinic set out to change policy in Maine.
"So whenever we had a kid who came in in shackles, we'd file a written motion and litigate it," says professor Chris Northrop, who oversees the clinic. He says students first tackled the issue through litigation, with some success.
"And every time we filed the motion, we won the motion," he says. "We did not lose any arguments."
But the change was piecemeal. To take it statewide, the students turned to legislation.
Last spring, Maine's Legislature considered a bill that would allow juveniles to appear in court shackle-free unless a judge had concluded that a safety issue or flight risk was present.
Boardman worked with 16-year-old Skye Gosselin to present testimony about Gosselin's personal experience being shackled in court as a 12-year-old.
"It felt like all eyes looked at me as if I were a crazed animal or a criminal — not what I really was," Gosselin says. "A 12-year-old child."
She had been brought into court to respond to charges of disorderly conduct at school, but Boardman says the shackles were applied after Gosselin accidentally missed her first court date because her mother had misread it.
"And upon realizing that she had missed a court date, they immediately went to the court on the next assigned juvenile docket day, where she was greeted with leg irons, belly chains, and handcuffs," Boardman says.
Maine's House and Senate passed the bill, but Gov. Paul LePage ultimately vetoed it. All along though, Northrop says, Maine's judiciary was watching. And once the bill died, the judiciary proposed a rule change to prohibit juvenile shackling in court unless ordered by a judge.
The new rule was adopted Nov. 1.
Northrup says he hopes that the accomplishment will bolster the students in their careers.
"And when they see something wrong, they have the confidence and experience to change it, not only for their client, but for everybody in the system," he says.
Boardman has since graduated from law school and currently works at Pine Tree Legal as an advocate for kids who've been expelled from school. At the Maine School of Law, Northrop says students are already tackling another project involving juvenile court records.