When I first started practicing law, one of the best pieces of advice I was given was: “dress the way you want to be treated.” 

If you want people to treat you like a professional, then dress like one; if you look like a criminal, then people will treat you like one.

State Rep. Gene Wu

In my role as an attorney, I represent children who have been charged with a crime. Children as young as 10 years old are charged and detained under our state’s current law. Most of them are given a sentence ranging from a stern warning from the judge all the way to state prison.

The physical shackling of children in juvenile court is a widespread practice across Texas. Young children, sometimes weighing no more than 60 pounds, often appear before judges wearing a prison jumper, heavy leg irons, handcuffs, and belly chains — as if they were violent criminals.

In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the unnecessary shackling of adult defendants prior to conviction was a violation of their right to due process. The Court’s majority opinion held that this created a prejudicial image of the defendant—that, in other words, if they looked like criminals, then judges and juries would implicitly and unfairly presume them to be guilty and dangerous.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has not made any distinction between adult and juvenile defendants, juvenile courts across the country have, unfortunately, been slow to adopt this new standard and have continued the indiscriminate shackling of children during proceedings.

It should not be hard for us to imagine that that unnecessary shackling puts children at a disadvantage in court. In a criminal justice system that already disadvantages people of color—where the darker skin of African Americans and Hispanics are sometimes seen as evidence of violent tendencies—seeing young boys and girls in ten pounds of iron only reinforces prejudicial notions and misgivings.

Scientific research has not only found that this practice increases the likelihood of negative case outcomes, it has also shown that it can potentially have long-lasting, traumatizing effects on the child and their families.

When children exhibit delinquent behavior, there is often a history of trauma and unaddressed mental health needs. These children need help and rehabilitation, rather than more trauma and embarrassment that unnecessary shackling delivers.

The Texas Legislature owes it to Texans to end this arcane practice during the 86th Legislative Session. My legislation, House Bill 4267, would restrict the use of physical restraints in juvenile court to cases where they are actually necessary for the safety of the child and those in the courtroom.

Additionally, under House Bill 4267, courts would be required to give children the opportunity to dress in plain clothes (instead of a jumpsuit provided by a detention center) during proceedings in front of the judge or jury.

For better or worse, our personal appearance has an ability to sway others’ opinions of us. In our society, if you look like a criminal, then you will be treated more harshly and prejudged guilty without proof. We must ensure that children are given the same fair shot in court that adults are afforded.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column, by state Rep. Gene Wu of Houston, is part of a series of op-eds by members of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. The Rio Grande Guardian has partnered with MALC to present a series on legislation MALC members have filed or on issues important to Texas. The series will run throughout the 86th Legislative Session. To reach Rep. Wu email: [email protected]