New Brunswick's child and youth advocate wants the government to end the practice of handcuffing and shackling young people who find themselves in trouble with the law.

Children as young as 12 are handcuffed and restrained with leg irons when they're transported in the back of sheriffs' vans to appointments and court appearances.

The practice can make young people — including some who haven't yet been convicted of a crime — feel like criminals, advocate Norm Bossé said.

"Psychologically, it's really harmful to the kids," he said.

In one case, a 98-pound girl, only 16 years old, told Bossé it made her feel "like an animal" to be shackled.

"That's not rehabilitation or re-adaptation in any stretch of the imagination," Bossé said.

In his 2017 State of the Child report, released on Monday, Bossé says New Brunswick has made progress in reducing the number of youth — from 12 to 17 years old — who are behind bars.

Only about 11 young people are incarcerated at the New Brunswick Youth Centre in Miramichi, a number that was closer to 40 a decade ago.

But there's still more work to be done, according to Bossé's report.

No policy on shackling

Norm Bossé

Norm Bossé, the New Brunswick child and youth advocate, is calling on government to end the practice of shackling and handcuffing young offenders. (CBC)

That begins with eliminating shackling.

Bossé has previously compared the treatment to "an abuse of authority" that brings the justice system "into disrepute."

He would like to see the New Brunswick government develop a risk assessment process, so only the riskiest young offenders are physically restrained.

Instead, every youth is shackled and handcuffed by default, risky or not.

"I've been told there was a policy," Bossé said.

"I asked for the policy. There is no written policy on the use of shackles."

Green Party Leader David Coon said the government should end the "appalling" practice.

"For the vast majority of youth, as the child and youth advocate said, it's totally unnecessary and damaging," Coon said.

Youth, adults shouldn't be housed together

Handcuffing young offenders

In New Brunswick, young offenders are often physically restrained with handcuffs and leg irons, even if they aren't a risk to anyone. (Radio-Canada )

Bossé also takes issue with housing young offenders under the same roof as adult women at the New Brunswick Youth Centre.

Last month, some adult men displaced by a fire at the Southeast Regional Correctional Centre were also temporarily moved to the youth jail in Miramichi.

For Bossé, it doesn't matter that adults and youth are separated by a green fence.

"That still violates the principle of separating youth from adults in incarceration," he said.

No response from government

Many of these concerns aren't new.

Two years ago, Bossé released a report called "More Care, Less Court," aimed at getting government to focus on the root issues that see troubled youth end up behind bars.

But the provincial Liberal government never responded to any of his recommendations, despite repeated attempts by Bossé to get an update.

Coon doesn't think the government is taking the advocate's reports seriously.

David Coon

Green Party Leader David Coon wants New Brunswick to stop the 'appalling' practice of shackling and handcuffing young offenders. (Radio-Canada)

He wants New Brunswick to establish a committee that would force government to respond to recommendations issued by independent legislative officers like Bossé.

"There's no one holding their feet to the fire on this," Coon said.

Families and Children Minister Stephen Horsman — who was minister of justice when Bossé's 2015 report was released — attended the State of the Child event on Monday.

He left without taking questions from reporters.

The Department of Justice and Public Safety declined an interview request. Spokesperson Elaine Bell said the department is reviewing Bossé's report and its recommendations.