Children in Rutherford County have been arrested and jailed at rates unparalleled in the state. We’re investigating how that happened — and other ways the justice system there singles out children.
A juvenile detention center in Rutherford County, Tennessee, that for years illegally jailed children will now be overseen by a five-member board rather than the county’s juvenile court judge, a change designed to bring greater accountability to a long-troubled system.
At a meeting earlier this year, the county’s mayor said he thought the shift could bring “more oversight or transparency.” The board members will be appointed by Rutherford County commissioners.
In October, ProPublica published a detailed account, in partnership with Nashville Public Radio, about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system. The story chronicled how the county had illegally arrested and jailed children for years, all under the watch of longtime juvenile court judge Donna Scott Davenport. Last June the county settled a class-action lawsuit, eventually agreeing to pay more than $5 million to hundreds of people who have been arrested or jailed as children. And Davenport has since announced her retirement.
Within Tennessee, Rutherford County stood out for years in terms of the percentage of kids it locked up in cases referred to juvenile court. In 2014, for example, the county jailed children in 48% of those cases. The statewide average was 5%.
Many children in Rutherford County were placed in solitary confinement under conditions a federal judge called inhumane.
After ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio wrote about Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system, state lawmakers called the system a “nightmare” and “unchecked barbarism.” The state’s governor called for a judicial review. Eleven members of Congress signed a letter asking the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the county’s juvenile justice system.
In January, Davenport announced she would not be seeking reelection and would retire at the end of her term this summer. Two candidates are currently running to replace her. Davenport previously declined a request to be interviewed. She did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment for this story.
As director of the detention center since 2001, Lynn Duke has reported to Davenport, who appointed her to the job. (Duke did not immediately respond to a request for comment. She has previously declined to be interviewed.) The new board will oversee Duke as well as all the detention center’s policies, procedures and budget.
County officials said they want applicants with experience in law enforcement, building maintenance and the state’s child welfare system.
However, an investigation by Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica found inadequate systems of oversight starting with the county and going all the way up to the state and its Department of Children’s Services.
Duke appears monthly before county commissioners, who have rarely asked questions about policies. They sometimes liken the jail to a business, with one even joking that it’s like a hotel. At one meeting a commissioner said it would be “cool” if, instead of being a cost center, the jail could be a “profit center.”
Meanwhile, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which licenses juvenile jails, inspected Rutherford County’s jail every year. Not once did it flag an illegal policy under which the jail was incarcerating children.
Before publishing our story last fall, we requested an interview with the department’s longtime director of licensing. But the department refused to make him available.