Marin Plans to Put Juvenile Suspects in a Glass Cage

July 13, 2011

By Trey Bundy  |  The Bay Citizen  —  

Defense attorneys are furious about a plan to require juvenile criminal suspects in Marin County to sit inside “glass cages” during court proceedings. The lawyers say the proposal is unnecessary and unconstitutional.

The plan would include building a rectangular box — equipped with speakers and a microphone — inside the county’s only juvenile courtroom. The structure would be made out of tempered glass with a small opening through which court papers could be passed.

“I have never heard of this being done in juvenile court,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “The only place was once when there was some dreaded adult defendant in Los Angeles.”

The plan would apply to all juvenile suspects who are incarcerated at the time of their court proceedings, regardless of the nature of their alleged offenses.

“Let’s face it, we don’t have a lot of high-end crime in Marin,” said defense attorney James Nielsen of Alternate Defenders, Inc. “But we’re going to treat them like animals even if they’re in for vandalism.”

Late last month, Kim Turner, the executive officer for Marin County Superior Court, sent a memo to Nielsen. The memo included blueprints for the structure and explained the court’s intention to build it.

Nielsen and other lawyers said the plan was created without consulting lawyers who represent juvenile suspects.

“I let her know that we were pretty much unanimously objecting to the construction and that we would like to have a meeting,” Nielsen said. “She basically responded saying, no meetings necessary, and things were going to proceed according to her plans.”

Turner did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Critics have called the plan an affront to the dignity of minors in the court system, and said placing juveniles behind glass could alter how judges and others in the courtroom perceive them — and possibly impact the outcome of cases.

Marin County Public Defender Jose Varela thinks the plan is, in part, a cost-saving measure — a way to do without a bailiff in the courtroom — after the state cut $350 million from California’s court system on July 1.

“We’re running into a budget crunch that makes it difficult to have a bailiff out there,” Valera said.

Ron Ravani, a Marin County deputy district attorney, said his office had no comment on how the plan might help or hurt minors and their cases.

“We’ve been told that the courtroom is unsafe,” he said. “We’ll work with the courts in providing a safe environment.”

The new plan would call for defense attorneys to sit inside the enclosure with their clients, while others, including the minors’ family members, would sit elsewhere in the courtroom. Nielsen said such an arrangement would interfere with the minors’ Sixth Amendment right to “effective assistance of counsel” by creating a physical barrier between defense lawyers and prosecutors.

“The court doesn’t want to call delays every time you want to talk with the district attorneys,” he said.

When Varela, the public defender, heard about the plan, he called around to other counties to see if any of them required juveniles to sit in separate enclosures in court. Frenso, Yolo, Napa, Contra Costa and Solano said they did not use them.

“I called LA and they don’t have it,” Varela said. “You would think if someplace was going to have something like that, Los Angeles would have it.”

Varela argued that putting kids in the proposed structure would not “engender trust between minors and the court,” and would alter the juvenile court system’s primary function, which is rehabilitation.

“Juvenile courts around state tend to be courts that are relaxed and allow people to see the children as people who can be rehabilitated,” Varela said.

“Of great concern is the possibility that African-American and Latino families, and other families of color, would be truly offended to see their children corralled in that manner,” he added.

Last year, under threat of litigation, Marin’s Juvenile Court abandoned a plan to have incarcerated minors participate in legal proceedings via video conferencing from the confines of juvenile hall three miles from the courthouse.

In response to the new plan, Sue Burrell of the Youth Law Center fired off a letter to Superior Court Judge Verna Adams.

“We understand that there may be occasional cases in which additional security is needed, but urge you to deal with those cases on an individual basis instead of forcing every child to be treated like Al Qaeda terrorists,” she wrote.

Nielsen said about 15 defense lawyers have signed a letter to Adams and Superior Court Judge Terrence Boren expressing their concern about the enclosure.

Varela said that aggressive behavior by minors in court is “highly uncommon” and that he is not aware of any incidents that resulted in serious injuries. He said the court is simply worried about “the potential for something terrible to happen.”

“But to make this a standard involving all juvenile incarcerated youth is a horrible precedent to set,” he said.

Nielsen agreed.

“They should be required to show a need for this. It seems like a waste of time and taxpayer money,” he said. “This whole idea of putting juveniles in these glass cages is puzzling to us.”

tbundy@baycitizen.org