Public defenders like Sarah Ellsworth grimace as juvenile clients, some as young as 10, are escorted into Minnesota courtrooms while shackled.

"Small steps," Ellsworth often advises, so they don't trip on the irons fastened around their ankles. Some children are so small that when they do find their seats, their legs dangle.

"It breaks my heart," said Ellsworth, managing attorney of the 10th Judicial District's juvenile division. "A lot of these kids are doing stuff we've all done and just didn't get caught for."

Criminal justice reformers and child welfare advocates have long sought to bar the indiscriminate shackling of youth — a common but unevenly enforced practice across Minnesota. This spring, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers drafted a bill that could spell the end of what critics consider an archaic and dehumanizing control method in court.

Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, sponsored the legislation to limit use of mechanical restraints except in rare circumstances when the court deems them necessary to protect public safety or prevent flight risk.

"These policies we're using sound out of step with modern sensibilities," Long said in an interview, noting that being shackled can result in long-term harm for kids. "You're made to feel guilty before you've even had a chance for trial."

The provision, just one among an ambitious package of juvenile justice reforms, was included in the House's Public Safety bill. But its fate hinges on a divided Legislature striking a deal to avoid a government shutdown during the ongoing special session.

At least 32 states and Washington D.C. have limited the automatic shackling of youth through legislative action or court order. Yet, Minnesota maintains no uniform guidance on the practice, meaning policies vary greatly from county to county.

Hennepin and Ramsey Counties don't employ such restraints unless permission is explicitly granted by a judge. Courts in Duluth and the greater St. Louis County area are ruled by a similar edict, which banned most juvenile shackling in 2017.

In places like Stearns, Meeker and Polk Counties, however, teenagers are routinely cuffed by their hands and feet — often secured by a belly chain — during transit and while in court.

In many cases, this occurs regardless of the child's alleged offense.

'Justice by geography'

A lack of uniformity across the state means that two juveniles who are caught committing the same crime could face entirely different consequences. A growing cadre of advocates complain that's inherently unfair.

"It's really a justice by geography issue, because it depends on what side of the county line you get arrested, whether you get shackled," said Sarah Davis, executive director of the Legal Rights Center. "We're behind the curve."

The subject is not a partisan one, Davis said. States led by Republicans and Democrats have moved away from the practice in recent years.

Proponents of reform argue the automatic use of restraints runs counter to the rehabilitative goals of juvenile court, violates due process and unnecessarily humiliates children.

The damage can be especially acute to Black youth, who are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers in Minnesota, according to a recent study by the D.C.-based Sentencing Project.

"We don't even do this to adults anymore," Curtis Shanklin, state deputy commissioner of corrections, testified in favor of the anti-shackling legislation in May. "I'm of the belief that one child being subjected to these practices is one child too many."

The U.S. Supreme Court and the Minnesota Supreme Court have separately ruled the routine shackling of adult defendants unconstitutional because it undermines the presumption of innocence. Although minors appear before judges, not juries, advocates stress that even agents of the court are subconsciously influenced by whether a juvenile walks inside while chained versus of their own accord.

"Judges would like to say that they're able to put that aside, but we're all human beings and our biases are inherent — and we might not even realize it," said Ellsworth, the public defender based in Anoka County.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered courthouses and forced judges to hear cases via Zoom, Ellsworth watched as kids jammed their fingers into the cuffs rubbing their bare ankles, searching for relief. Sometimes, a nearby deputy would oblige her request to loosen the restraints.

COVID-19 precautions have prevented juvenile clients in her district from being shackled the last 15 months. Ellsworth considers that a silver lining.

'I felt a lot of shame'

But teens who went through the experience say it has a lasting effect.

Angel Knutsen, of Winona, recalls being shackled the first time at 14, for violating probation on charges of minor consumption. Deputies loaded her into a transport van with cuffs on her ankles and hands, which were secured by a chain around her waist.

"I felt a lot of shame," said Knutsen, now a 21-year-old certified nursing assistant who spent five years entangled in the juvenile justice system for petty nonviolent offenses. "[The mind-set was] 'if they're going to assume I'm a bad kid and I do bad things, I'm going to eventually prove them right.' "

Knutsen estimates she was shackled at least 20 times during that period.

Her story is troubling to attorneys and advocates across the state, many of whom believe shackling should be used only as a last resort.

Legislation to limit the practice in Minnesota has been introduced each year since 2013 and always failed. Instead of continuing to rely on lawmakers, public defenders are lobbying chief judges of each judicial district to make the changes via standing order.

"We're hoping if they see other districts have done it, and it's been successful, that there won't be much opposition," said Joe Bergstrom, Assistant Public Defender in the Fifth District. "I think it's the most shocking part of the juvenile system."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648