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Bryant Has Notched a Legislative Victory

July 2007
Jennifer Heaslipa
John Moeur, Herald editors

“Many issues we face - particularly African-American youth from
low-income and working-class families - without a lot of resources,” said Bryant

RALEIGH - Midway through her first year in the North Carolina Legislature, Democratic State Rep. Angela Bryant has notched a legislative victory and helped add a touch of caring and understanding to the state's juvenile justice system.

Bryant sponsored a bill establishing state standards for shackling juveniles when they appear in court.

The measure comes on the heels of a controversy in Guilford County and a national debate over the shackling of teenagers and children as young as 10.

Shackling is described as handcuffing a person to a chain wrapped around their midsection. Additionally, a chain cuffs both ankles, limiting the length of a person's stride and often forcing them to simply shuffle their feet as they move forward.

Under the new law, a juvenile appearing in court may only be subject to physical restraint if the judge deems it necessary to keep order in the court or to keep the minor from escaping. Defense attorneys have the right to challenge the judge's decision.

Until Bryant's bill, North Carolina had no standards for using shackles on children. It was a whim of law enforcement or the desire of the judge.

“My goal was to try and focus on what I could do to help young people,” Bryant told the Daily Herald about her goals in the Legislature.

The first seeds of the new law came after Legal Aid attorneys were frustrated with trying to stop the use of shackles on a mentally challenged girl in Guilford County earlier this year.

According to the Rocky Mount Telegram, the attorneys were approached by a lobbying group, which offered to research the controversy without charge.

The association later brought the idea to Bryant.

She looked at the national concern over restraining youth and was worried children might be shackled by default or convenience regardless of need, age, gender or the charges.

In an article published in USA Today, other experts raised the concern that the use of shackles would be a detriment to the way the children viewed themselves.

Patricia Puritz, executive director of the National Juvenile Defender Center, a group of lawyers who represent children in court, described shackling as “so egregious, so offensive, so unnecessary. There is harm to the child and there is also harm to the integrity of the process. These children haven't even been found guilty of anything.”

Opponents of shackling children point to several U.S. Supreme Court decisions asserting that the use of chains and handcuffs can unduly influence a jury.

Bryant believes shackling juveniles without reason is unconstitutional, especially since you can't do the same to adults without reason and permission from a judge.

Being shackled makes the juvenile look bad and leads to the wrong perception, she added.

Lawyers claim it's becoming more of a problem, although Bryant said shackling was less the case in our area and more of a problem in big cities.

“Our goal was at least to get a standard that applies across the state,” Bryant said.

She started working on the bill in February. It went to the juvenile justice committee and then the judiciary committee, then to the Senate before being sent to the governor, who signed it last week.

“I was so excited. I was just really pleased and proud that it got done, and hopeful it will be helpful,” she said. “Hopefully it will stimulate more discussion.”

Bryant is a lawyer who, although she hasn't practiced in 16 years, does consulting work and is still involved in legal issues.  She also served on the Rocky Mount City Council before claiming a seat in the House, where she serves on the juvenile justice committee and education committee.

“In these roles, I have been very interested in issues facing youth,” she said.  “Many issues we face - particularly African-American youth from low-income and working-class families - without a lot of resources.”
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Paid for by the Committee to Re-elect Angela R. Bryant