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For years, there’s been a major push to limit the number of children sentenced to juvenile detention courts. Studies show incarcerated children are at greater risk of psychological abuse, sexual assault, suicide, and an education that is so inadequate they are set back for the rest of their lives. And while many states have made progress, reducing child arrests by 63% between 2009 and 2018, it’s a different story in one Tennessee county.
Only five percent of kids referred to juvenile court in Tennessee are detained — unless you live in Rutherford County, where that figure is 48%. How is Rutherford’s child arrest rate so much higher, especially in a state where children can only be jailed under extreme circumstances?
- First, the county’s Judge Donna Scott Davenport, who has overseen its juvenile system since 2000, claims she is on “God’s mission” to discipline children and has been the driving force for child detainment.
- Second, the county used to employ a “filter system” in which Judge Davenport appoints a jailer who gets to decide if an arrested child is a "true threat," a term undefined in the jailer's manual, and detain them if they are. This is counter to common practice where the judge determines release or imprisonment when the arrested child is in court.
- Lastly, Rutherford county jails children for crimes that do not exist. The most known case is from 2016 when 11 Black elementary schoolchildren were arrested. Four were jailed for “criminal responsibility for conduct of another.” In other words, for not stopping a scuffle involving a five and six-year-old boy who were throwing punches at another boy.
As a result, an estimated 1,500 children have been illegally jailed in Rutherford County under Judge Davenport. And this directly benefits the county at a rate of ~$175 per child per day, collected from contracts with the 39 other counties to hold detainees.
While the filter system was banned in 2017 after a class-action lawsuit and resulted in fewer kids being jailed, the county continues to expand its juvenile system under Judge Davenport’s jurisdiction. And now, 11 members of Congress have sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking to open an investigation into Rutherford’s juvenile operations, driven largely by ProPublica’s continued reporting on unfair child arrests in the area.
🎬 Take Action
With 48% of cases in Rutherford County involving minors resulting in jail time, many are calling for the removal of Judge Davenport. To learn more, see the active petition on Change.org.
- Forbes (Where we found this story) 2.5 weeks old | 5 minutes long
- Children’s Defense Fund Stats on U.S. child arrests 1 year old | 7 minutes long
- Propublica Filter system gets banned 9 days old | 10 minutes long
- Nashville Public Radio Congress sends their letter 6 days old | 7 minutes long
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Is this our time out?
Art Credit: ASCII Art Archive