“She was cruel, she was evil, she was completely biased, everything she was not supposed to be,” said Sheryl Guinn of Rutherford County Tennessee Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport after a report released by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio revealed she has been incarcerating juveniles at alarming rates.
The report revealed the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, which is about 30 miles southeast of Nashville, locked up 48 percent of all kids that came before Judge Davenport meanwhile the state average was only 5 percent.
At the center of the report, a 2016 case involving students from Hobgood Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Eleven young Black kids were arrested for simply watching two boys ages 5 and 6 fight off school grounds.
The arrested children were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” in essence, the children were punished for not trying to stop another person from committing a crime or in the case in question because the kids did not stop the boys from fighting, they were arrested.
The alleged crime the kids were arrested for does not exist, which means not only were they arrested but some of them were jailed for hours for a crime not on the books.
Charges quickly were dropped against all 11 children, but not before damage was done.
Guinn says Rutherford County, Tennessee, saw an influx of Black residents moving in from neighboring Nashville due to gentrification. She believes Davenport used her position to incarcerate Black youth at disproportionate rates as a response to an increasing Black population.
“I think honestly, people just got scared, in Rutherford County, I think the white majority, their position was, all of these people moving in, and we’ve got this influx of things happening and basically, we want something done about it and I think Donna Scott Davenport was one of those people who wanted something done,” said Guinn.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports 11 percent of the student population in Rutherford County, Tennessee, is Black, 74 percent is white and other racial groups make up the remaining 15 percent.
In 2016, students illegally detained launched a class action lawsuit against Rutherford County. Lawyers for the students explain that Davenport is responsible for two policies that have put so many children behind bars:
The county’s aggressive program of illegally arresting juveniles — known as its “Always Arrest” policy — dates back to a memo issued in 2003 by Donna Scott Davenport, the county’s juvenile judge. The memo was interpreted by law enforcement officials to mean that all children charged with any juvenile offense must be physically arrested and taken to the county’s detention center, even if state law mandated that the child be released with a summons or citation.
Going hand-in-hand with the always-arrest policy is Davenport’s “filter” system that goes into effect when children arrive at the juvenile facility.
The filter system requires police to bring arrested children to the juvenile detention center, where staff decide if a child would be detained based on whether the arrested child is a “true threat.” The true threat determination was subjective and vague without clear guidelines. A backlog among juvenile cases meant kids could be incarcerated for days.
Davenport had this policy added to the juvenile detention center staff manual in 2008, but lawyers involved in the case say the county had a longstanding practice of incarcerating children illegally dating back to the 1990s.
In June of this year, a settlement was reached worth $11 million. Lawyers involved say 1,500 children are eligible to make claims for compensation if they were illegally incarcerated. The settlement has been filed in federal court for final approval.
Atlanta Black Star sought comment from Judge Davenport or Rutherford County officials on the allegations and the class action lawsuit.
Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron said in a statement: “I share our community’s concerns over a news story that was recently released involving Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system. This is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit in federal court and, therefore, the County is very limited in what can be discussed. With that said, changes to the system were put in place in 2017 to ensure that the County is strictly following required federal and state laws regarding arresting and detaining of juveniles.”
Middle Tennessee State University has since cut ties with Davenport following the ProPublica report. Davenport had previously served as an adjunct professor at the school until last week.
Guinn hopes the report on the Rutherford County juvenile justice system under Davenport’s watch serves as a wakeup call to the community and exercise their right to vote during next year’s election. Davenport has been reelected repeatedly to the position since she first won the post in 2000.
“No one needs to let this go and say well, this happened, and we just need to move forward, no, you can’t move forward if she’s still in power,” said Guinn.