Juvenile Justice

Judge who required jail visit for all arrested juveniles remains on bench after lawsuit payout

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A tough-talking juvenile court judge in Rutherford County, Tennessee, established a policy requiring arrested elementary schoolchildren to be taken to the juvenile detention center for screening before charges were filed—even if the charges were minor.

ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio published a story about the county juvenile justice system in which a high number of elementary children were arrested and detained, even for playground fights and cursing. PBS NewsHour interviewed one of the reporters.

Judge Donna Scott Davenport created the process, and the jailer she appointed for the juvenile detention center used a “filter system” to determine which children should be held.

That created high numbers of children jailed in cases referred to juvenile court. The statewide average was 5%, while in Rutherford County, 48% of the children were locked up.

Davenport “has been the county’s only juvenile court judge since 2000, when the court began,” said Nashville Public Radio reporter Meribah Knight in an interview with PBS NewsHour.

And Davenport “has a really outsized role. She oversees the courts, and she oversees the juvenile jail. And up until this incident [involving the arrests of children who watched a fight], she directed police on what she called our process for arresting kids, which basically was every child who was arrested, even for something minor, … they must first go to the jail.”

In the fight case, 11 children at the Hobgood Elementary School were arrested for failing to stop a fight outside school grounds. In a posted video of the fight, two boys, ages 5 and 6, were throwing punches at a larger boy as he walked away.

Ten of the children were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” which is a prosecutorial theory rather than an actual charge, Knight said in the PBS NewsHour interview. Among the 10 children charged in the case, all were Black. The four girls and two of the boys were released before a court hearing. Four boys were locked up. One of the arrested children was only 8 years old; she was allowed to go home when an officer who instigated the arrests said she wasn’t supposed to be picked up.

That 2016 incident “would expose an ugly and unsettling culture in Rutherford County, one spanning decades,” ProPublica reported. “In the wake of these mass arrests, lawyers would see inside a secretive legal system that’s supposed to protect kids but in this county did the opposite. Officials flouted the law by wrongfully arresting and jailing children.”

In a class action lawsuit, lawyers estimated that children in Rutherford County had been wrongly arrested 500 times, and 1,500 children had been wrongly locked up under the juvenile jailer’s filter system. More than 50 children were jailed for offenses that wouldn’t be crimes if they were adults. They included detentions for being “unruly,” for truancy and for running away.

The 11 children arrested in the fight also sued, and they received a combined $397,500 in settlements.

A federal judge ordered the county to stop using the filter system in May 2017, saying children were being subjected to “illegal detention.”

In June of this year, Rutherford County agreed to pay up to $11 million to settle the class action suit.

Davenport still runs juvenile court, earning $176,000 per year, and the same jailer runs the juvenile detention center, earning $98,000 per year.

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