Series: Juvenile Injustice, Tennessee
Where Kids Meet the Rule of Law
Eleven members of Congress sent a letter Wednesday asking the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, based on reporting published this month by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio.
The letter, sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland, says, “Tennessee’s children deserve to enjoy their childhoods without the fear of being unjustly searched, detained, charged, and imprisoned.” The letter’s signers, all Democrats, include Reps. Steve Cohen, from Memphis; Val Demings, from Florida; Cori Bush, from Missouri; and Ted Lieu, from California. Cohen is on the House Judiciary Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties.
The ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio story detailed how Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system had for years illegally arrested and detained children. A federal judge ordered the county to stop using an illegal detention policy in 2017. In June of this year, the county agreed to pay up to $11 million to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by kids who alleged that they had been illegally arrested or jailed.
In 2014, the last year for which Tennessee published an annual statistical report on how many kids were jailed in cases referred to juvenile court, Rutherford County detained nearly 10 times the state average. The system is overseen by Donna Scott Davenport, the only elected juvenile court judge the county has ever had.
The investigation chronicled how the judicial commissioners’ office in Rutherford County approved a charge, “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” to use against 10 children who had been accused of witnessing other kids in a fight and not stopping it. There is, in fact, no such charge. Rutherford County does not require judicial commissioners to have law degrees, and the two commissioners who were involved in that case are not lawyers.
The letter to Garland asks the Justice Department to investigate the role of judicial commissioners, as well as gaps in statewide data on the work of juvenile courts. “Without data, we do not know whether similar abuses to those perpetuated by Rutherford County are occurring in the state’s 97 other juvenile courts,” the letter said.
We emailed a request for comment to Ashley McDonald, a Rutherford County spokesperson who has also been handling interview requests for Davenport, this afternoon, but did not receive an immediate response. For an earlier story she released a statement from the county’s mayor, Bill Ketron, in which he said, “I share our community’s concerns over a news story that was recently released involving Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system.” A Justice Department spokesperson confirmed that the agency received the letter and is reviewing the request, but declined to comment further.
Last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office called for a review of Davenport. “We are concerned about the recent reports and believe the appropriate judicial authorities should issue a full review,” the governor’s press secretary wrote in an email.
Four days after the story was published by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio, the president of Middle Tennessee State University notified faculty and staff that Davenport “is no longer affiliated with the University.” Davenport had taught juvenile justice for many years at the school, which is based in Murfreesboro, the seat of Rutherford County.
This weekend, Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney in Alabama, told MSNBC that the operation of Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system “just boggles the mind.”
Joe Walsh, a former U.S. representative from Illinois, tweeted: “I’m white. I’m conservative. But it’s shit like this that has helped convince me that systemic racism is real.” He exhorted people to read a thread about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system, calling it “fucking disturbing.”
In Tennessee, several lawmakers expressed outrage. State Sen. Jeff Yarbro tweeted, “This is so wrong on so many levels,” and called the juvenile detention practices of Rutherford County a “nightmare.” State Sen. Brenda Gilmore also called the happenings in Rutherford County a “nightmare,” saying, in a tweet, “This is a mess and we must do far better.” Meanwhile, Gloria Johnson, a state representative, tweeted, “Our Democratic caucus will work to make sure this never happens again.”
In addition to the request from members of Congress, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has also called for a federal civil rights investigation into Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system.
Under former President Donald Trump, the Department of Justice retreated from civil rights investigations, seeing them as a form of federal overreach. In 2018, when ProPublica and the South Bend Tribune reported on police misconduct in Elkhart, Indiana, Elkhart’s mayor even asked the Justice Department to investigate; the department never opened a probe.
Under President Joe Biden and Attorney General Merrick Garland, the Justice Department has been more likely to use its power to rein in abuses by local law enforcement. Since April, the department has opened at least five civil rights investigations, into the police departments in Minneapolis, Louisville and Phoenix and into conditions in Georgia’s prisons and in five juvenile detention facilities in Texas.