Attorney for inmates fights to break 'human chain' in courtrooms
An inmates' rights group is moving in federal court to stop the unwarranted use of shackles in Alaska's courtrooms.
Attorney Ember Tilton was in U.S. District Court Friday on behalf of Alaska Pretrial Detainees, which hopes to end the practice of hauling criminal defendants into courtrooms shackled together wrist to wrist. The inmates claim the practice violates the constitutional rights of pretrial detainees.
"I think the appearance of people in court is one of the most visible and felt aspects of being in a courtroom," Tilton said. "I feel from the very first minute they are brought into the courtroom that they are going to be mistreated. They are not likely to assert their rights or expect any kind of fairness from the system."
The group also says minor offenders who enter a courtroom shackled to someone charged with a serious crime upsets lesser defendants' presumption of innocence.
"Some individuals may be arrested for the very first time," Tilton said. "They may be unable to pay bail and be next to someone with a record and in some cases it's even men being shackled to women. That can be terrifying and not knowing what the other person is charged with, it could be a violent crime and they might be a violent person."
Shackling also presents a threat of physical harm.
"Now you're being asked to be the anchor to hold them down and make sure they don't run wild in the courtroom," Tilton said. "It has happened where a person has acted out and the other people are being tugged around by the wrists with handcuffs on -- it's extremely painful."
Attorney Ruth Botstein argued against the motion saying the change in procedure would be a threat to security in state courtrooms.
"Asking the courts statewide to draft and change policies would be extremely difficult," Botstein told the court. "All courts in Alaska would have to make changes in security. Everything from the way inmates are restrained in vans and holding cells, those are security risks. That calls for more security, more people to hire and now we need more money not to mention the added paperwork."
Tilton feels the concerns people have are a little too exaggerated.
"I don't think that this would be more expensive," Tilton said. "I've worked in other states and in other courts where it's just not done this way and the costs are not any different, it comparable."
There are affidavits on the record by some Alaska court judges who agree that the new procedure would only add a few more minutes to an arraignment.
"Once an order has been made then it can follow that person through the court proceedings unless something changes," Tilton said. "It doesn't need to be expensive."
Tilton's plan is to get rid of the wrist-to-wrist shackling, but not for everyone.
"Handcuff people individually," Tilton said. "That also would not be any more expensive at all. If people were brought in with one set maybe at their arraignment and a determination made there. Then it's a quick conversation where the state could say one thing, the defense would have a say and then the court decides."
Tilton says when low risk offenders are shackled with high-risk inmates, the only thing they can think about is getting out of the courtroom.
"Imagine someone who's gotten heir first DUI," Tilton said. "They were polite when they were arrested, they were brought in and arraigned in the morning. They don't make bail and are then handcuffed at a status conference or a hearing later next to another individual in on a very serious assault or kidnapping case or something horrific. That person is going to be terrified and want the court process to end as soon as possible. They are not going to be thinking about what is going on, talking with their attorney, exercising their rights or making the correct plea. They are going to be thinking about the guy next to them."
Tilton says people have tried to ask in for the policy change in state court system but there doesn't seem to be much willingness to change. Going through federal court would request a systemic change. A ruling is expected in the next 10 to 30 days.
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