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With Open Hands 

Why defendants in Spokane County courtrooms no longer wear shackles

click to enlarge A new jail policy tries to balance courtroom safety with defendants' constitutional rights. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • A new jail policy tries to balance courtroom safety with defendants' constitutional rights.

A young man stands with his hands clenched behind his back in a Spokane County Superior Courtroom one afternoon. His palms are red and sweaty from squeezing so tight, and he's wearing yellow pants and a yellow shirt that says "Spokane County Jail" on the back.

The man waits while Judge Linda Tompkins reviews his criminal record before sentencing him for a felony charge. He hopes that Tompkins accepts the recommended sentence agreed upon by the attorneys — three months with credit for time served.

The courtroom is silent as the judge leans into the microphone.

"I'm satisfied with counsel's recommendation of the three months with credit for time served," she says.

The man's hands unknot from behind his back and dangle at his side. He signs a few court documents, shakes his attorney's hand and turns around so the Detention Services officer can cuff him for the trip back to jail.

That handshake — that universal signifier of human dignity and respect — was only recently possible again in Spokane thanks to a Washington State Court of Appeals ruling and a new jail transport policy in Spokane County.

Starting around 1996, in order to save time and make transportations from the jail to courtrooms more efficient, the Spokane County Jail started bringing inmates to court six, seven and eight at a time, hooked together in belly chains with their hands cuffed in front. Case law dating back decades, even centuries, has established that it's unconstitutional for a defendant to be restrained in front of a jury (unless the court finds good reason to do so), a Sixth Amendment right. However, appearing in cuffs and shackles at a hearing was more nebulous.

In February, the Washington State Court of Appeals ruled that defendants are to appear at all court hearings unrestrained unless the court sees good reason to do so. In State v. Walker, the court denied appellant Vernon Walker's appeal for a new sentencing hearing, but the case raised some interesting questions: Who should ultimately decide if an in-custody defendant should be uncuffed in front of a judge? How is that decision made? What are viable reasons for leaving restraints on?

Ultimately, the court decided, the presumption is for defendants to appear uncuffed during all hearings.

Tom Krzyminski, director of the Spokane County Public Defenders' Office, estimates that in late 2012 transport officers, citing safety concerns, began refusing to remove handcuffs during all court hearings — motions, first appearances, arraignments, pleas, sentencings — even if the defendants were not connected by belly chains. Jail protocol at that time said a minimum of two officers could escort a maximum of eight inmates restrained by belly chains. One officer also might escort two or three inmates at once, but wouldn't take the cuffs off for safety reasons.

"They kind of created their own security issue by bringing in two or even 10 [defendants] at a time," says Krzyminski, who notes that before 2012, officers would bring over one inmate at a time and take the cuffs off in the courtroom.

Sgt. Ian Purcell says an increase in transfers also contributed to Detention Services' decision to escort more inmates at once, and according to Spokane County Jail transport records, he's right. Requests for transportation to court have been rising slightly over the past six years, but is efficiency enough reason to violate constitutional rights?

The Washington State Court of Appeals says no. Despite the February ruling, Spokane County only recently implemented a policy (on April 20) that says all "inmates will be unrestrained for their court proceedings" and directs Detention Services to escort no more than three inmates at a time.

"Safety is our first and foremost concern for everyone involved," says Training Coordinator Tom Frantz, who's been a detention officer in Spokane for 28 years. "As soon as those restraints come off, it's more dangerous for everyone."

"The issue is the lack of dignity," says Matt Harget, a Spokane County public defender. Transport officers "were doing it to every defendant, regardless of if it was a nonviolent drug charge or a homicide." He gives a recent example of a nonviolent 69-year-old client who was no threat to escape; without the appellate court's ruling, in Spokane, the client would have been restrained.

The court decision and new policy in Spokane allows Detention Services to request that a particular inmate remain in cuffs if they believe there is a security risk. Officers must submit a request for an on-the-record hearing to make their case, and the court will then make a decision.

For Judge Tompkins, that input from detention officers is vital, as they're the ones interacting with inmates on a daily basis, and therefore have the best idea of who might try to escape or who could be dangerous.

However, Krzyminski sees a possible problem with a hearing to determine if his clients should be restrained.

"I could see where you might not want the judge to know some of these reasons before sentencing because they might be bad things but have nothing to do with the charge," he says. Revealing the fact that a defendant has been fighting in jail, for example, could be presented as an argument for leaving the cuffs on and could weigh on a judge's mind at sentencing.

Tompkins disagrees.

"I've been doing this for way too many years to have anything get in the way of my look at the criminal history," she says. "If an individual is inclined to act up in court, that probably just supports the criminal history, but it doesn't add anything to the criminal history."

Krzyminski acknowledges that the new policy is an improvement on the cuffs-no-matter-what system.

"If we start with the presumption that cuffs come off during all court hearings, I'm fine with that," he says. "Then we can go from there." ♦

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