Tennessee county illegally jailed Black children: report

A bombshell ProPublica investigative report demonstrates how Black children were locked up for crimes that did not exist

A Tennessee county profited off the jailing of young Black children for “crimes” that don’t exist, according to a scathing ProPublica report published Friday.

Since 2008, children as young as seven were jailed in Rutherford County, Tenn. using what the county called a “filter system,” in which it was left to the discretion of jailers to determine whether an arrested child sent to the juvenile detention center should be released or held.

That process resulted in a 2016 incident in which police officers rounded up young kids seen in a video overlooking a fight in Murfreesboro, Tn. Eleven Black elementary school students were arrested, with four locked in jail.

The kids were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” — a “crime” that does not exist in Tennessee law – for simply watching a fight.

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(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The incident resulted in a class-action lawsuit against the county that was settled in 2017 when the country agreed to pay out a combined $397,500 to the 11 children. A separate class-action lawsuit ended the county’s filter system, with a federal judge stating that it “departs drastically” from ordinary processes and that “children in Rutherford County are suffering irreparable harm every day.”

At the head of it was Judge Donna Scott Davenport, the county’s only juvenile court judge who often solely determined whether children charged with crimes should be processed at the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Davenport, a white woman, gained a reputation for her hardline stance with the kids. She spoke on a local radio station calling herself the “mother of the county” and believing she’s on “God’s mission” to discipline its children, whom she believes are behaving much worse than before.

Under Davenport, Rutherford County jailed 48 percent of children in cases referred to its juvenile court, in comparison to the Tennessee state average of five percent.

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(Credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Unsurprisingly, the 1,500-some kids illegally jailed in Rutherford County is a story of systemic avarice.

“County officials have also said at meetings they view the 64-bed detention facility as a profit center, since it has contracts with 39 other counties and the U.S. Marshals Service to hold child detainees, reportedly at a cost of $175 per person per day,” the report reads.  

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services also shares blame for the injustice so many children endured.

“Tennessee Department of Children’s Services licenses juvenile detention centers. But its inspectors didn’t flag Rutherford County’s illegal filter system, which was right there, in black and white. We collected nine inspection reports from when Duke put the system in until a federal judge ordered it out. Not once did an inspector mention the jail’s process for deciding which kids to hold,” ProPublica reported.

Davenport still has her job, and so do the head of the juvenile detention facility and the officer who signed off on the “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” charges. ProPublica determined that the center is still working to fill that financial void.

The story caught the attention of local politicians, including Tennessee Senate Minority Leader Jeff Yarbro (D) and legendary broadcast journalist Dan Rather, both of whom tweeted about it.

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