“She was cruel, she was evil, she was completely biased,” Sheryl Guinn of Rutherford County, Tennessee, said of Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport after a report by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio revealed she had been incarcerating juveniles at alarming rates.
The Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, located roughly 30 miles southeast of Nashville, was found to have locked up 48 percent of all children who appeared before Judge Davenport, when the state average was only 5%.
A 2016 instance involving pupils from Hobgood Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is at the heart of the report. Eleven young African-American children were jailed for simply observing two boys, aged 5 and 6, fight outside of school grounds.
The arrested children were charged with “criminal responsibility for the behavior of another,” which means they were punished for failing to try to prevent another person from committing a crime, or in this case, for failing to stop the boys from fighting.
The purported crime for which the children were arrested does not exist, which means that they were not only arrested but also incarcerated for hours for a crime that did not exist.
The charges against all 11 children were immediately dismissed, but not before significant harm had been done.
According to Guinn, gentrification in Rutherford County, Tennessee, resulted in an influx of Black citizens from neighboring Nashville. She feels Davenport used her position to disproportionately imprison Black youngsters in reaction to the growing Black population.
“I think people just got scared,” Guinn said. “I think the white majority in Rutherford County, their position was, all of these people moving in, and we’ve got this influx of things happening, and we want something done about it, and I think Donna Scott Davenport was one of those people who wanted something done.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Black students make up 11% of the student population in Rutherford County, Tennessee, while white students make up 74% and other ethnic groupings make up 15%.
Students who were wrongfully held filed a class-action lawsuit against Rutherford County in 2016. According to the students’ attorneys, Davenport is accountable for two policies that have resulted in the incarceration of so many children:
The county’s aggressive practice of illegally arresting children, known as the “Always Arrest” policy, dates back to a memo issued by the county’s juvenile judge, Donna Scott Davenport, in 2003. Law enforcement officers interpreted the letter to suggest that all minors charged with a juvenile offense must be physically detained and sent to the county’s detention center, even if state law required the child to be released with a ticket or citation.
Davenport’s “filter” mechanism, which kicks in when kids arrive at the juvenile center, goes hand in hand with the always-arrest policy.
The filter system compels officers to take jailed youngsters to a juvenile detention center, where professionals determine if the child is a “real threat.” Without clear guidelines, determining the true threat was subjective and ambiguous. Due to a backlog of juvenile cases, children could be detained for days.
Although this regulation was added to the juvenile detention center staff manual in 2008, lawyers involved in the case claim that the county has a lengthy history of unjustly incarcerating juveniles dating back to the 1990s.
An $11 million settlement was made in June of this year. According to the lawyers involved, 1,500 youngsters may be eligible for compensation if they were wrongfully imprisoned. The agreement has been filed in federal court and is awaiting final approval.
Judge Davenport and Rutherford County officials were contacted for comment on the allegations and the class action lawsuit by Atlanta Black Star.
“I share our community’s concerns regarding a news article that was recently released involving Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system,” Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron said in a statement. Because this is the subject of pending litigation in federal court, the County is constrained in what it can say. As a result, reforms to the system were implemented in 2017 to ensure that the County adheres to all applicable federal and state laws when arresting and holding adolescents.”
Following the ProPublica investigation, Middle Tennessee State University severed connections with Davenport. Until last week, Davenport worked as an adjunct professor at the university.
Guinn hopes that the report on the Rutherford County juvenile justice system, which was overseen by Davenport, serves as a wake-up call to the community, encouraging residents to exercise their right to vote in the upcoming election. Since her first election in 2000, Davenport has been re-elected to the office several times.
“No one should let this go and say, ‘Well, this happened, and now we just have to go forward,’ because you can’t move forward if she’s still in power,” Guinn said.