Tennessee County Exposed for History of Jailing Black Children

In Summary

An investigative report by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio revealed Rutherford County in Tennessee was jailing Black children at a high rate and making up crimes.

A county in Tennessee is being exposed for its practices that have put numerous Black children in jail. 

According to an investigation by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio, many Black children in Rutherford County were put in jail for crimes that didn’t exist. All of this happened under the direction of Judge Donna Scott Davenport, the investigation said.  

In the state of Tennessee, about 5% of cases referred to juvenile court result in children being jailed. In comparison, that figure is 48% in Rutherford County.  

One of the cases of children being jailed includes four girls who were arrested in school in April 2016. According to the investigation, officers arrived at Hobgood Elementary School to arrest the girls because they were seen in a video not stopping a fight between small boys.  

Police did not give the school principal permission to notify the girls’ parents that they were being arrested, including one child with diabetes who would need treatment as school prepared to let out for the day. As the principal retrieved the four girls from class, one student told her that two of the girls selected were not present at the fight. Despite this, and the tears of the girls, officers placed some of them in handcuffs.  

The girls were in such emotional turmoil that one fell to her knees after being placed in handcuffs and another threw up. The youngest among them to experience this traumatic event was just eight years old, and she was arrested by mistake. In the days that followed, police officers arrested a total of 11 students.  

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Davenport, the only elected juvenile court judge, has been the only person to hold the position since it was created in 2000. With this power, she referred to herself as the “mother of the county.” Despite juvenile court being private, Davenport has maintained a high profile critiquing modern parenting and saying her work is “God’s mission.”  

Her position has given her an unmatched authority that allows her to make the rules because there are no juries in juvenile court. She has also enforced a strict dress code in her courtroom that bans untucked shirts, sundresses, spaghetti straps, spandex, body piercings, uncovered tattoos and pants without a belt.  

Although Tennessee law has narrow limits on when a child can be placed in jail before receiving a court hearing, Rutherford County has its own system under Davenport’s direction. Records from the incident revealed all children charged in the case were Black. The four girls were released, but four of the boys were jailed.  

The problems with the juvenile system in the county stemmed from the creation of a new detention center. A consulting firm brought on to advise the county wrote a lengthy report revealing the county was jailing children at an exceptionally high rate. The county ultimately rejected the firm’s recommendations and dropped out of working with them.  

Instead, a new 64-bed detention center was built and opened in 2008. The written manual for the facility included a “filter system” that would guide officers on when to jail a child who was brought in for a detention hearing. According to the investigative report, “Under the filter system, the child would be locked up if deemed ‘unruly.’ But the filter system defines ‘unruly’ simply as ‘a TRUE threat,’ while ‘TRUE threat’ is not defined at all.”  

The policy of jailing children also spread across the state as Rutherford County charged $175 a day to detain and hold children from other counties. The center also kept children in solitary confinement and withheld their medication.  

All 11 children involved in the incident sued the county, the city of Murfreesboro and several police officers. Beginning in 2017, the children began receiving settlements for a combined total of $397,500. For some of the children, the money was specifically set aside for counseling services.  

The county was also hit with a class-action lawsuit accusing it of illegally arresting and jailing children. The lawsuit was settled in June 2021 and the county agreed to pay $11 million. Years prior, in 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to stop using the filter system.  

Now, Davenport and the detention center focus on detaining children from other counties. According to the investigation, 39 counties and the U.S. Marshals Service contract with Rutherford County for the facility.  

The full report can be read here.  

If you or someone you know is struggling from trauma triggered by this story, resources are available here.   

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