Tennessee County Reportedly Illegally Jailed Hundreds Of Children, Charging Some With Crimes That Don’t Exist

A suburban county in Tennessee near Nashville illegally held children for years and used bogus charges to justify the act, according to a ProPublica investigation. This was part of a system that sent children as young as seven to prison.

Rutherford County in Tennessee saw 48% of the children referred to juvenile court end up in jail. This is almost 10 times more than the state average. getty

The Key Facts

ProPublica reports that Rutherford County in Tennessee used a "filter system" beginning in 2008. This allowed jailers to decide if a child should be taken to the juvenile center and arrested. However, Tennessee law does not allow children to be held for more than a few days. The county's sole juvenile court judge, Judge Donna Scott Davenport, has made it clear that all children accused of crimes will be processed at the Detention Center. They can either be arrested or dropped off their parents. The policies were used in a 2016 incident that caused outrage. Six children were handcuffed, and four were taken to jail. The children were accused of criminal responsibility for conduct in another, which is a Tennessee crime, after they allegedly watched a fight between a six-year old boy and a five year-old girl. Rutherford County settled the case in 2017. The county paid out $397,500 to all 11 children. A separate lawsuit also ended the county's filter system. According to ProPublica the officer who approved the criminal responsibility for conduct for another charge was suspended for three consecutive days while Davenport and the head of the juvenile facility remain employed, according to reports.

Big Number

48% This is the number of children in jail in the county following a referral to juvenile court in 2014. The most recent data available for 2014 is 48%. This was the highest county in Tennessee, and nearly 10 times higher than the state average of 5.5%.

Important Background

According to ProPublica's records, Davenport took a hard line with juveniles during her tenure as elected juvenile court judge. This position she held since 2000. The judge has enormous power over the juvenile justice system. She appoints all magistrates and approves policies for the detention centre. Davenport is also a guest on a monthly segment of a local radio station. She has stated that children behave far worse than in the past and she will appear on this segment. According to ProPublica, Davenport claims she believes she is on "God’s mission" to discipline the children of the community. She sometimes refers to herself as "mother of the country." Due to her "process", which requires all children charged with a crime to be sent to the detention centre, and the facility's filter system that allows jailers to decide who is released, around 1,500 children were illegally held in Rutherford County while she was a judge. At meetings, county officials also stated that they see the 64-bed facility as a profit centre because it has contracts with 39 counties and the U.S. The Marshals Service holds child detainees at a cost of $175/person per day. Forbes and ProPublica did not reach Davenport for comment.

Important Quote

"Being held in our facilities is no picnic. It is not meant to be. It's a consequence of an action," Davenport stated during one her radio segments.

Chief Critic

ProPublica's piece on Friday drew widespread condemnation for the Rutherford County juvenile justice system. On Twitter, Jeff Yarbro (D), Tennessee Senate Minority Leader, said that "this is so wrong at so many levels." He also added that the "story about this nightmare" is well worth your attention.

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Black Children were Jail for a Crime that Doesn't Exist. The Adults Charged Didn't Do Much. (ProPublica).