Manti • Inside the pale stone historic courthouse in this rural Utah town, youths coming to court from juvenile-detention centers are shackled. They sit in the jury room with their hands bound to a belly chain that rests on their hips, a bailiff watching over them as they wait for their cases to be called.
The chains often stay on when they go into the sole courtroom for their hearing.
And, at times, authorities shackle youths to the floor, cuffing their ankles to a steel plate in the jury room. This happens when a judge orders a juvenile taken into custody; the youth sits chained to the floor until a sheriff’s deputy comes to the courthouse to take him or her to a detention center.
These practices conflict with a 2015 amendment to Utah’s juvenile-offender laws, passed by legislators who wanted only minors who were a flight risk or could harm others to be restrained in court.
Under the rule enacted by the Utah Judicial Council after the amendment passed, a judge is supposed to decide on a case-by-case basis whether a youth should be shackled.
Yet the judicial rule has an exception for “exigent circumstances” — and court officials say the outdated Sanpete County Courthouse presents security issues that require them to routinely shackle youths.
Advocates say the sort of shackling happening in Manti can be harmful to young people and treats even the most minor offenders as hardened criminals. But court officials say it’s just one of myriad security issues at the old courthouse, built in 1935, that won’t be remedied unless a new facility is built.
“We’re doing the best we can,” said Wendell Roberts, the trial court executive for the 6th Judicial District.
Lawmakers three years ago passed a juvenile justice bill that included changes to how youths were shackled in court — a change that was enacted by the Utah Judicial Council a year later.
Former Sen. Aaron Osmond, a South Jordan Republican who sponsored the bill, said then that shackling youths hadn’t always been the default in Utah, but it had become the norm in recent years.
Before the rule change, any youth who was staying in a detention center, regardless of the severity of his or her alleged crime, came to court handcuffed.
“In my view, the evidence was compelling that shackling a youth in court was unnecessary and only had negative psychological effects of shaming and embarrassment,” Osmond told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2015.
In most Utah courtrooms today, youths wear no restraints unless the juvenile court judge finds they pose a risk to public safety or a danger to themselves.
But in Manti, a city of 3,500 about two hours south of Salt Lake City, there’s no holding cell in the 83-year-old courthouse to secure defendants before and after hearings.
This means adult defendants sit shackled in a jury box in the single courtroom and listen to one another’s cases as they wait for their own to be called. But because juvenile cases are typically not public, young defendants are kept in chains in the jury room while they wait.
Youths frequently continue to wear handcuffs into the courtroom for their hearing, according to Sanpete County sheriff’s Lt. Brad Bown, who works in the courthouse.
The metal floor ring welded to a heavy steel plate in the jury room was originally made to be used in the courtroom during a murder trial for an adult. Now, it’s used to hold juveniles for short periods of time. Bown said this generally only happens once every month or so, when a youth is unexpectedly taken into custody and an additional bailiff isn’t available to watch him or her. He couldn’t recall anyone being shackled to the floor in the past six months.
Shawn Marsh, director of judicial studies at the University of Nevada in Reno, was part of a national group that pushed to end indiscriminate shackling nationwide. The social psychology professor said research has shown that few youths are legitimate flight risks who need to be restrained.
But the effects shackling can have on youth defendants, many of whom have experienced trauma themselves, can be powerful.
“There is something fundamentally, potentially damaging, to take a person [who has] been injured psychologically, emotionally, physically and further restrain them,” Marsh said. “Since it’s being forced upon you, you’ve lost control. You’re not given an opportunity to have a choice.”
Marsh said shackling also can reinforce stigma and stereotypes by treating young people like criminals.
He said the best way to balance security issues with concerns about damaging young people is to have a judge decide shackling on a case-by-case basis — much like what happens in courtrooms throughout the rest of Utah. Thirty-one other states have similar rules preventing automatic shackling, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center.
Anna Thomas, senior policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children, said members of her organization first took note of the metal ring used to shackle youths to the floor in Manti during site visits. They were researching youth access to public defenders, attorneys paid by counties to represent indigent defendants.
“The image [shackling] gives of those kids, and just how it paints them in a courtroom or even in their own community — it’s just super concerning,” she said.
Thomas said Voices for Utah Children found that youths' experiences in Utah’s juvenile justice system can vary greatly, based on which county they live in — and not just when it comes to whether they will be handcuffed in court. She said the group found frequent discrepancies in whether a youth offender was given an attorney.
“Ideally, you would have kids appointed an attorney upfront,” she said. “When you get further and further away from major population centers, that just gets really hard to implement.”
An outdated building
David Angerhofer, a Mount Pleasant-based defense attorney who works as a public defender in Sanpete County, said he doesn’t feel the shackling practices in Manti have been a hindrance.
“I haven’t noticed anything that jumps out at me as abusive or excessive,” he said in a recent interview.
But not having a holding cell or a conference room in a secure area of the courthouse does create challenges for the defense attorney. If he needs to talk to a young client before a hearing, his only option is to sit side by side in a set of mismatched chairs with his client, just outside the jury room in a secure hallway.
“I work in other courts, and it’s nice to have individual little rooms to sit there and talk alone,” he said. “... It would be nicer than sitting in a chair in the hallway, to put your client at ease and so forth. It’s not ideal, but it’s manageable.”
Roberts, the trial court executive, said the only option for adult defendants who need to talk to their attorney — conversations that are supposed to be private — is to either put them in the jury room or use chairs in the hallways.
“That’s why we’re trying to get a new courthouse,” he said.
Roberts said when he started working for the courts in 2008, he noticed a number of security issues in Manti. There was no separation between the public and those in custody and the staff; a resident running an errand in the courthouse could have walked by an inmate going into a hearing.
Two years later, court officials tried to remedy the situation by adding more doors with key code locks to wall off “secure” areas behind the courtroom where the public can’t have access.
But there’s still no way, with the current structure, to separate inmates from the court staff, Roberts said. In the cramped hallway behind the courtroom, there have been times when a judge has passed an inmate whom he just sentenced.
It’s also problematic that the judge and inmates use the same building entrance and exit, he said, and there’s no secure parking for judges. There have been times, Roberts said, when a defendant has left the courtroom and followed a judge to his car to argue over a ruling.
It’s ideal, he said, to keep three separate areas in a courthouse: one area for the public, one for court staff and another for inmates.
“It’s just impossible to do it in that building,” he said.
Though the district courts are run by the state, the Manti building is one of several in rural Utah that are owned by the local county. Court officials lease parts of the buildings, which often have other county offices in the same area. In Manti, for instance, the Division of Motor Vehicles, the justice court and the county attorney’s office are in the same building as the courtroom.
A decade ago, Sanpete County residents considered sponsoring a bond to build a new courthouse in Manti. The proposal fell short by fewer than 10 votes.
So, in recent years, court officials have asked legislators to provide funds for a new courthouse, but the project has been ranked too far down on the priority list to get state funding.
Last year, it was 11th on the Utah Building Board’s list — below a Utah National Guard readiness center, a Department of Agriculture and Food building replacement and several facilities at universities and technical colleges. It ranked as the 14th priority the year before.
Court officials already have purchased land to build on, a 2.34-acre plot where a boarded-up, dilapidated construction building and three narrow World War II-era parachute production buildings now stand.
And they are trying again this year, requesting more than $19 million in state funds to erect a new building that will help solve their most pressing safety concerns.
The ultimate decision rests with Utah lawmakers, who will dole out funding when the legislative session starts in January.
Until then, youths coming to the outdated courthouse in Manti will be treated differently than other young people in the state, wearing chains when normally they would not.