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New restraints added to court’s handling of pregnant women

LISBON — During a court hearing last week, before ordering a woman to be taken into custody to serve a 10-day jail sentence, Common Pleas Court Judge Scott Washam asked a couple unfamiliar questions.

“Not to embarrass you, but I must ask, are your currently pregnant?” Washam asked, followed quickly by, “Have you had a child in the past six weeks?”

The questions came from concerns over a new state regulation that went into effect April 12 regarding limits for restraining or placing women or girls into solitary confinement while they are pregnant or recently postpartum.

The Ohio House bill deals with several changes to the laws regarding sentencing, but one of the changes creates new civil rights regarding those currently or recently pregnant. Once a woman or girl have been charged with a crime. if they are known to be pregnant or have been pregnant within the past six weeks, there are few exceptions when they can be handcuffed or restrained by items such as leg shackles.

One exception is if she could be a serious threat to cause physical harm to herself, an official, law enforcement, court personnel or someone else. However, before placing her into restraints, the official must contact a health care professional treating the woman and notify them of the intent to do so. Additionally, to continue the health care professional must not object due to the type of restraint or expected duration posing a risk of physical harm to the woman or unborn child.

In the event of an emergency circumstance, the woman could be placed into handcuff restraints, but as soon as time allows, the official must then contact a health care professional.

Leg shackles, ankle and waist restraints are categorically barred for all known pregnant or postpartum women at this time.

The new law makes it possible for both a misdemeanor criminal charge and civil penalties to be filed against those violating the law.

According to information provided by county Prosecutor Vito Abruzzino from the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, if the woman is not visibly pregnant and has not informed the police officer she is pregnant, an arresting officer’s use of handcuffs would not be barred due to the pregnancy being unknown. Additionally, if no charge has been filed at that point, the woman would not qualify under the regulation.

Additionally, placing a woman in the police cruiser or into a regular jail cell with others around would most likely not be considered solitary confinement, which the OPAA points out was not really clearly defined by the new law.

However, the new law also makes things trickier, such as how to handle transporting someone for court cases, which may necessitate the use of restraints. It leaves it up to the jail employees or court to contact the woman’s physician or to have to have a health professional on staff at the facility to treat the woman. One of these health care professionals can object to potential risks to the woman or the unborn child due to the handcuff restraint.

The woman in court last week assured Washam she was not pregnant or postpartum and was taken into immediate custody.

This type of personal questioning may become more frequent in the future as those in law enforcement and the court system navigate the new law.

djohnson@mojonews.com

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