LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - The State Supreme Court adopted a rule last year to take cuffs and shackles off young defendants in court, but, in Jefferson County it wasn't being followed. That changed in December after a new judge started putting the rule in action.
The former juvenile court judge had the right to override the no cuffs rule. The rule allows a judge to do so if the circumstances aren't right. But, when Jefferson District Judge David Holton took over six months ago, he got the Sheriff's Office, public defenders and prosecutors together to make the change.
For Holton, the reason is clear. Juvenile court is heartbreaking.
"It's an emotional place, and it can be a very depressing place," Holton said.
He sees kids charged with some serious crimes, many have family problems, others deal with substance abuse, mental issues, poverty, or a lack of education. Holton has heard it all, even a parent announcing they don't want their child to live with them anymore.
"These kids need somebody to talk to them, more importantly to listen to them at times," he said.
That's why, in his courtroom the chains are off.
"Justice is supposed to be blind and in my court it really is," Holton said.
The only blind judge in Kentucky can see what others can't, and is being applauded by child advocates. Sherry Hurley, the Deputy Chief in the Juvenile Division of the Jefferson County Public Defender's office told WAVE 3 News by taking the shackles off children, they feel more human,
"The idea of treating juveniles as mini adults, the research really shows that's bad," Hurley said.
In court, Holton asks a 16-year-old pleading guilty to 4th degree assault if he really wants to change.
Holton: "Are you ready to move on with your life and have days that are peaceful and not full of drama?"
Boy: "Yes sir."
During a talk with the judge, the boy said he had dreams of starting a business and designing jeans.
Holton: "Do you think you can find a pair to fit me?"
Boy: "Maybe," they laughed.
Holton says cuffs stay on defendants charged with murder, or if they appear to be violent, but he calls many of the crimes he hears in court 'knucklehead' moves. That was the case with a 15-year-old girl charged with throwing chicken at a police sergeant.
Holton: "So, you made this officer mad didn't you?"
Holton: "Was the chicken cold or what?"
Girl: "No it was still warm."
Holton: "Never throw away warm chicken, ok?"
The judge told us of the young defendants,
"I think to just bring them out in chains and cuffs, it just furthers their self-image as criminals and that is the first thing we've got to get out of their head is that they're criminals," he said, "hell, they are kids."
Holton acknowledged some of those kids are charged with serious crimes and says public safety is always foremost in his mind when he decides their fate. When it comes to no shackles in the courtroom, Jefferson County Sheriff's Spokesman Carl Yates tells us, so far, they've had no problems.