A juvenile court judge in Rutherford County, Tennessee, is facing criticism following a joint ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio report that alleges that Black children were illegally detained. The children were jailed at a rate nearly 10 times higher than the state average, and that’s even when no crime was committed, according to the report.
The report said that Judge Donna Scott Davenport instituted a policy that all children charged with crimes be processed at the detention center. In 2016, 11 Black elementary school children, some as young as eight and nine years old, were detained for not stopping a fight captured on video. Ten of the children were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another”, the report said.
Frank Ross Brazil, an attorney who represented some of the children, told ABC News that criminal responsibility is a prosecutorial theory and not a charge under Tennessee law. “If you and I are in a car, and there’s something illegal in the car and I’m arrested for possessing it, you could be also found guilty of possessing that substance by the theory of criminal responsibility for another,” he said. “So, that being applied as a charge in and of itself is unlawful.”
Davenport, who is the sole Rutherford County Juvenile judge, is also being criticized over a “filter system” which, according to the report, allowed jail staff to determine which children to hold. Police, under the filter system, would bring children they arrested straight to jail. There, staff could decide whether or not to hold them until their detention hearing. Meanwhile, a detention hearing could take days, the report said.
“Children who had done something as minor as skipping school might find themselves behind bars,” WTRF wrote. In the 2016 case, the children were arrested, taken for processing and then released after they had been charged, the report said. A class-action lawsuit that was filed, and later settled, against Rutherford County argued that this process was a violation of Tennessee law.
The lawsuit said that for many juvenile misdemeanor offenses, the police are required by state law to release children with a citation or a summons rather than taking them into custody.
“There has to be something done to everyone who was involved in this,” Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) said, according to WTRF. “It’s my understanding that they created a law that wasn’t even on the books in order to make that happen.”
The report found that in 2014, children were detained on average in 5% of juvenile cases statewide. In Rutherford County, children were detained in 48% of cases, the report said. In 2016, lawmakers called for a federal investigation into the arrest and detainment of the Black children in Rutherford County.
The lawsuit was settled in June this year for $11 million. Brazil said Rutherford County denied any wrongdoing. And as part of the settlement, each child who was improperly detained got $5,000 and each child who was improperly arrested got $1,000. The officer who signed off on the charges was suspended for just three days, according to WTRF.
State lawmakers have called for action following the release of the report. Tennessee State Sen. Jeff Yarbro said on Saturday that the report’s findings were “wrong on so many levels”.
“It’s a horror show plain and simple, it’s abusive and it doesn’t even resemble law,” Yarbro told ABC affiliate WKRN.
Davenport, who is still the juvenile court judge for Rutherford County, is yet to respond to the allegations.