It has been a little over three years since I began my reporting on juvenile justice in Tennessee. Until then, I hadn’t paid much attention to juvenile courts. For a reporter, they’re difficult to cover with any kind of intimacy. They are shrouded in secrecy in a way adult courts are not. The records are sealed. The proceedings are mostly private. And it’s for good reason: The dumb stuff you do as a kid shouldn’t follow you into adulthood.
But this privacy has its downside, because it can shield the adults in charge from accountability. And as I soon found out, juvenile justice in the state does need someone — maybe a reporter — to pay attention.
Tennessee has 98 juvenile courts and even more juvenile judges. Those judges have a lot of discretion, making decisions on everything from whether to take a case to whether a kid should get locked up and for how long. What’s more, in Tennessee, kids have no right to a jury trial. So, there’s really no check to a judge’s authority in a case — they decide how to interpret the facts and the law.
“It’s like the Wild West out here,” one juvenile defense lawyer told me. “Each judge is its own county, some are hard on crime, some are progressive.”
I can tell you from my reporting, he’s not wrong. Along with my colleague Ken Armstrong, I embarked on this story, now a podcast, to try to see inside one county’s juvenile court system, where an all-powerful judge and the jailer she appointed were playing by their own rules and the children were caught in the middle. But I learned about other juvenile justice systems along the way.
In a county about 20 miles northeast of Nashville, I observed a hearing on a case involving a group of kids, one armed with a BB gun, who had stolen a phone and car keys from a teen couple. The hearing was for a 16-year-old girl who had held onto the stolen phone during the robbery. The assistant district attorney, known for his tough-on-crime approach, had charged her with aggravated robbery and filed a motion to have her case transferred to adult court. Despite pleadings by her attorney — this was the girl’s first offense, she’d been questioned by police without a parent or guardian present and was never read her Miranda rights — the judge granted the transfer. That means that this case, and any subsequent infraction, no matter how minor, would go straight to adult court, where the girl would face the same penalty as a grown-up. When the hearing ended, the girl, who stood less than 5 feet tall, was handcuffed and taken away with a bond set at $10,000. “I about died,” her lawyer told me afterwards.
The woman who conceived of juvenile court at the turn of the 20th century, a Chicago social worker named Jane Addams, believed that children could be corrected and rehabilitated because of their young age. And she believed that juvenile courts could step in to help make rehabilitation happen, acting in loco parentis — in place of the parent. Which meant making decisions in the best interest of the child.
That was the hope for Sharieka Frazier, the mother of a boy named Quinterrius Frazier, who was featured in our original investigation. They lived in Rutherford County, Tennessee, and when Quinterrius was in his early teens, he started running away, disappearing for a day or longer and hanging out with older kids. It worried Sharieka no end, so she started to track his phone. She’d go knock on doors looking for him.
But as Quinterrius got older, his mother began to lose her grip on him. He stopped playing basketball, a sport that had kept him focused and engaged. And he started hanging out with older kids who spent their free time on less wholesome activities. So Sharieka turned to the juvenile justice system for help. She called the police and took out a runaway petition (treated as a warrant) on Quinterrius to get him back home. “I just figured anything’s worth trying at this point,” Sharieka told me. “I was desperate. I didn’t have any help. I didn’t know what else to do. So that was where I turned.” Sharieka isn’t an outlier. I came across a number of cases where it was parents or relatives who made that first call to police, hoping law enforcement would step in to help.
As years passed, Quinterrius got sucked deeper and deeper into the juvenile justice system. Rehabilitation didn’t materialize. But a life of incarceration did.
When you spend time in juvenile court, you can still see the remnants of this rehabilitative mission. It’s there in the lingo of the court: There are “petitions” or “summons” instead of “warrants,” “juvenile delinquents” instead of “criminal defendants.” Courts make “determinations” on cases rather than handing down “convictions.” There are juvenile “detention centers” instead of juvenile “jails,” youth “development centers” instead of youth “prisons.”
But after years of covering the juvenile court system, I’ve come to realize that this belief in treating kids differently isn’t much more than semantics. During my reporting, I saw what amounted to a carbon copy of the adult system.
In Rutherford County, where our new podcast takes place, children were wrongfully arrested and jailed illegally for years. At least hundreds, likely thousands of kids, were stripped of their civil rights, arrested and held in jail when their alleged offenses didn’t meet the state’s legal criteria for incarcerating children. Some were then placed in solitary confinement. (You can read our 2021 investigation.) But just how much this juvenile justice system has strayed from Addams’ ideals, and the ways that the officials and court staff are complicit in that, is what kept me reporting on this story for years after the ProPublica articles were published.
I needed to clearly understand exactly how this had happened and to let you, the listener, hear directly from the people responsible, the people impacted and the people who tried to fight back. Because this wasn’t some state secret. Some of what was happening to kids in Rutherford County was known to officials. Years before its juvenile court was mired in lawsuits, the federal government had cited it for keeping kids locked up for too long. The county’s juvenile judge, Donna Scott Davenport, typically sentenced kids to two to 10 days in jail for cursing in the courtroom, which was common. Davenport was reprimanded for it, which led to a loss of grant money and some bad PR, but she didn’t seem bothered. “Was I in violation?” she told the local paper. “Heck yes. But am I going to allow a child to cuss anyone out? Heck no.”
A 2020 report by Human Rights for Kids, a nonprofit that investigates and reports on the human rights of children, ranked Tennessee one of the worst states in the country for its inability to protect the rights of children in the justice system. When our reporting on Davenport’s behavior came out, the local university where she was an adjunct lecturer cut ties with her. Later she announced she would not seek reelection and retired at the end of her term.
“Despite what you may hear about in the media, there is no such thing as ‘scaring a child straight,’” said Kathy Sinback, the longtime administrator in Davidson County’s juvenile court. “The evidence shows that children struggling with behavioral issues have the best outcomes when they are provided with support, encouragement, and positive opportunities — not isolation, fear and shame.”
I heard this same sentiment from the young people I spoke to. I met with one young man who was first arrested for truancy at 12. It was right after his mother died of a drug overdose and he was sent to live with a grandmother he barely knew. He wound up spending a decade in prison. “I wasn’t really a bad kid,” he told me, “ I was just a hurt kid.”
When I asked a few longtime juvenile court lawyers and administrators what they’d tell families who found themselves in the crosshairs of this system, their advice was to pay attention, ask for representation and don’t expect harsh punishments to fix a kid’s bad behavior. Chris Kleiser, a public defender of kids in Knox County, recommended asking for a lawyer for your child “at the earliest possible stage. And that includes if law enforcement wants to speak to your child before charges are ever brought.”
But even access to a lawyer isn’t guaranteed. Recently, the dearth of lawyers available to judges has hit a crisis point in Tennessee. According to the state’s administrative office of the courts, nearly half of all cases with a court-appointed lawyer are in juvenile court, and finding lawyers willing to take these cases is harder than ever. The juvenile judge in Henry County said her list of available lawyers is the shortest it has been in her 17 years on the bench. What’s more, Tennessee’s reimbursement rate for these lawyers — $50 an hour — is the lowest in the country and it hasn’t changed since 1994.
Addams conceived of juvenile court with a clear-eyed mission to rehabilitate the child. In Tennessee the juvenile delinquency statute is explicit: Decisions must be “in the best interest of the child.” But, as one lawyer put it to me, “that means whatever the judge thinks.”
Some places have explored newer and more child-focused approaches. In Nashville, for example, juvenile Judge Sheila Calloway launched Tennessee’s first restorative justice program for youth offenders, through which children accused of crimes as serious as aggravated burglary, felony theft or even homicide can be diverted away from the court system completely. Instead of meting out justice in a courtroom, a community-based organization guides conversations between victims and offenders, working toward truth and reconciliation and making meaningful amends.
“The less we use draconian measures, the more successful we are,” Calloway said when the program launched in 2018.
Davenport, who was featured in the podcast, did not subscribe to that point of view. Over and over she said, “We don’t punish our children at all. It’s all about treatment.” “I want the children that come in front of me to leave better than they came in,” she said. But Davenport’s actions belied her words.
In Rutherford County, kids as young as 7 were being jailed, in violation of the law. And Tennessee is moving further in Davenport’s direction: Today, state lawmakers are working to make harsher sentences for children more accessible to judges. Waiting in the wings for the next legislative session are a flurry of bills that would make it easier to transfer a child to adult court and increase juvenile punishments.
The bills have been criticized by juvenile attorneys, the ACLU and national experts. And the concerns raised about the bills also showed up in my conversations with lawyers, judges and experts, not to mention dozens of people jailed as kids: increases in recidivism, educational disruptions, mental health issues, trauma and a boatload of other negative outcomes.
“You want to believe that you can trust your justice system and your judges and with your children,” said Karerra Brewington, who was arrested as a child and whose brother was jailed repeatedly for much of his youth. “But you know, it ruined my life, it ruined my brother’s life.”
Another young man, Dylan Geerts, was 15 when he was illegally jailed by Rutherford County for breaking into unlocked cars and stealing a small radio, some loose change, a hat, a phone case and cologne. Dylan had never been arrested before, let alone jailed. But when police took him to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, staff there locked him up for four days. He proceeded to unravel emotionally and mentally.
I spoke with Dylan eight years after his incarceration. He’d become the named plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit against Rutherford County over its illegal policy that jailed so many kids, including himself. (Eventually that suit was settled and Dylan got $25,000 from it.) I asked him what he thought of Davenport’s statement that children should leave the system better than when they arrived. He looked right at me, shook his head and said, “They’re not coming out better than they went in.”