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In Tennessee, eleven Black children were arrested for a crime that doesn’t exist. Four girls were arrested at an elementary school. Police handcuffed a third grader, who was 8 years old. These arrests, in 2016, created outrage. But an investigation by Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica has found that these arrests were not isolated. They were part of an unsettling culture, spanning decades, in which children in Rutherford County were illegally arrested and jailed, all under the watch of a judge who calls herself the “mother of the county.” Judge Donna Scott Davenport was jailing children at the highest rate in the state.
Today, Nashville Public Radio (WPLN) and ProPublica, through its Local Reporting Network, published an examination into the lack of oversight and accountability of the Rutherford County juvenile justice system.
Reporters Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong reconstructed the 2016 case by filing more than 50 public records requests. They obtained more than 30 hours of audiotaped interviews from an internal police investigation. Knight and Armstrong also interviewed children (most, now adults) who have been arrested and jailed in Rutherford County, including one who, as a 15-year-old, was held in solitary confinement.
The reporting team found that in the 2016 case, the officer who instigated the arrests had been disciplined by her police department 37 times; that the county judicial commissioners who came up with the non-existent criminal charge don’t have a law degree; and that Judge Davenport needed nine years and five attempts to pass the state’s bar exam.
The team found that Rutherford County was able to illegally arrest and jail children for so long due, in part, to inadequate oversight by state agencies. For nine years the county’s juvenile detention center had an illegal policy written into its manual, leading to hundreds of children being wrongfully jailed. But the state agency that licenses juvenile jails never flagged it, according to its annual inspection reports.
The state has also failed to adequately collect and share data on juvenile courts statewide. For five years (2005-2009) Rutherford County stopped reporting a critical statistic. Instead of disclosing how many kids it was jailing, the county reported that in 90% of its cases, this was “unknown.” Tennessee’s failure to gather comprehensive data “impedes accountability,” a state task force concluded in 2017. A data review team has pushed for Tennessee to create a comprehensive case management system, but that hasn’t happened.