Tennessee judge used unconstitutional detention policies to jail children as young as seven

A longtime Tennessee juvenile judge used policies later deemed unconstitutional to falsely arrest and imprison ‘thousands’ of children as young as seven without due process, according to court documents.   

In March 2003, Rutherford County Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport established the ‘de facto policy’, referred to later in 2013 as the ‘filter system’, according to court documents reviewed by DailyMail.com. 

The detention policy was designed to ‘incarcerate children pretrial whenever (a) there was probable cause that the child had committed any delinquent offense, and (b) staff deemed incarceration to be in the child’s “best interests.”‘ 

But the meaning of ‘best interests’ was never defined and was left up to the jail’s discretion. The charges were as minute as truancy, and the ages of children arrested and jailed were as young as seven to nine years old.  

During a radio appearance in 2012, Davenport said, ‘I’ve locked up one 7-year-old in 13 years, and that was a heartbreak. But 8- and 9-year-olds, and older, are very common now,’ according to a news report. 

Under Davenport’s watch, in 2014, 48 percent of cases resulted in kids being jailed. The statewide average at the time was 5 percent, the report found. 

The policy sparked a class action lawsuit filed in 2017, which was amended two years later, then ultimately settled for $11million in June 2020. 

Payouts for the settlement were divided into two classes – wrongfully arrested and wrongfully detained. Wrongfully arrested got about $1,000 each and wrongfully detained received about $5,000. 

In exchange, the policy was banned and the county ‘denies any wrongdoing in any of the lawsuits filed against it.’  

Rutherford County Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport (center) has been scrutinized for implementing a detention policy that imprisoned children that a federal judge deemed unconstitutional

Rutherford County Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport (center) has been scrutinized for implementing a detention policy that imprisoned children that a federal judge deemed unconstitutional  

Davenport is pictured hearing delivering the 2015 commencement speech at her alma mater Middle Tennessee State University, which announced it cut ties with her on Wednesday

Davenport is pictured hearing delivering the 2015 commencement speech at her alma mater Middle Tennessee State University, which announced it cut ties with her on Wednesday

But four months after the settlement, on Friday, WPLN and ProPublica published an in-depth, investigative report that has gained nationwide notoriety. 

The report renewed scrutiny on Davenport and the county’s juvenile detention system, and spotlighted specific anecdotes of juveniles who were arrested and imprisoned on overzealous – and allegedly made-up – charges. 

In one case, children were arrested and thrown in jail on a little-known Tennessee law of ‘criminal responsibility for conduct of another’ because they didn’t break up a fight between a five- and a six-year-old, WPLN and ProPublica reported. 

‘There has to be something done to everyone who was involved in this,’ state Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) told WSAV on Wednesday. ‘It’s my understanding that they created a law that wasn’t even on the books in order to make that happen.’

‘That is horrible abuse of power. We have the Administrative Office of the Courts, I believe they should take action and investigate.’ 

Davenport has run the juvenile county justice system since its inception in 2000

Davenport has run the juvenile county justice system since its inception in 2000

Davenport, now 69, grew up in Mt. Juliet, a Nashville suburb and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University, in Murfreesboro with a degree in criminal justice.

She’s run the juvenile county justice system since its inception in 2000, appointing its magistrates and setting its rules. While other elected officials have shuffled in and out of county office, Davenport has remained and is expected to run again after her eight-year term ends next year. 

It’s unknown if the settlement and news reports have altered her plans.  

The investigative report showed how Davenport believes her calling is to instill moral values and restore family traditions. 

‘I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,’ she told a local newspaper, according to the news report.

On Wednesday, Middle Tennessee State announced that it cut ties with Davenport, who delivered a commencement speech in 2015. 

The school said in a statement: ‘To the university community, adjunct instructor Judge Donna Scott Davenport, whose actions overseeing Rutherford County Juvenile Court have recently drawn attention in national media reports, is no longer affiliated with the University.’

Neither Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron nor Davenport have responded to DailyMail.com’s request for comments. 

County officials and Davenport declined to speak to WPLN and ProPublica for their report.   

Davenport has referred to herself as ‘The Mother of the County. ‘The children in her courtroom aren’t hers, but she calls them hers’, the report says. 

‘I’m seeing a lot of aggression in my 9- and 10-year-olds,’ she said in one radio segment, according to WPLN and ProPublica. 

James McCarroll Jr. is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Murfreesboro, which held the first community meeting on the subject, following the 2016 arrest that led to the 2017 lawsuit. ‘You can’t make up the law,’ hetold WSAV. 

According to the most recent census data, Rutherford County, Tennessee has a population of about 332,00 and about 25 percent are under 18 years old. 

WPLN and ProPublica went digging: How they obtained information for their in-depth report

‘When the four girls were arrested at Hobgood Elementary School in 2016, media covered the community’s reaction and the immediate fallout. But left unknown was all that led up to the arrests; what the children, police and school officials, experienced, in their voices; and what the case revealed about the county’s failed juvenile justice system as a whole.

To reconstruct the Hobgood Elementary case, we obtained through public records requests 38 hours of audiotaped interviews conducted by Murfreesboro police as part of their investigation. 

That investigation included interviews with the school’s principal, Tammy Garrett, and 13 police officers, including Chrystal Templeton (who was interviewed twice for a total of seven hours), Chris Williams, Albert Miles III, Jeff Carroll and five higher-ups. 

Other materials we drew upon included videotape of the kids’ scuffle; the final report of the Murfreesboro Police Department’s internal review; the Metro Nashville Police Department’s external review; juvenile petitions; settlement agreements; and an email that Miles wrote to an investigator describing his conversation with a parent.

For this story we interviewed dozens of people, including children arrested in the April 2016 case and their parents. We interviewed, for the first time, the kids (now adults) whose cases launched class-action lawsuits against the county over its illegal detention practices and use of solitary confinement. 

We obtained thousands of pages of documents through 56 records requests to city, county and state agencies. We obtained more than a dozen personnel files and reviewed court records in seven federal lawsuits.

Donna Scott Davenport declined to be interviewed. 

But we listened to or transcribed more than 60 hours of her on the radio. We obtained her deposition and hearing testimony from a class-action lawsuit. 

Other records we relied on included disciplinary records from the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct; two personnel files; memos and emails; videotaped appearances before the Rutherford County Commission and a canvass of appellate opinions in cases she had handled in juvenile court. We also listened to the oral arguments from some appellate cases.

Lynn Duke declined to be interviewed. But she often appears before the county’s Public Safety Committee, and we watched and reviewed 137 of those meetings spanning 2009 to 2021. 

We obtained three depositions in which she was questioned. We reviewed her personnel file and drew upon her court testimony, memos and emails, as well as the detention center’s written operating procedures.

We reached out to each of the police officers named in our story. They each declined to be interviewed or didn’t respond. The sergeant who supervised Templeton also declined to be interviewed.

Michael Wrather, a Rutherford County commissioner, declined to be interviewed other than to say he stands behind his public comments praising Davenport.

We relied on reports and sometimes data from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury. 

We used Prison Rape Elimination Act audits and the 2004 consultant’s report from Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates. We also drew upon reporting from fellow news organizations, including Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal, The Tennessean, the Murfreesboro Post and the Tennessee Lookout.

Source: WPLN.org 

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