Between October and December, 2021, ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio published a series of reports on the jailing of 11 children, ranging from 8 to 12 years in age, who stood accused of not stopping a fight involving three other children in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The case of the 11 children—including one who did attempt to intervene and several who were not present at the altercation—hinged on the charge of “criminal responsibility for conduct of another,” which Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong’s initial report noted “is not even a crime.” Four of the eleven kids were jailed overnight, some were held for days, according to the joint ProPublica/Nashville Public Radio report.
Knight and Armstrong’s investigation of the case revealed that, dating back to 2014, Rutherford County “locked up kids in 48% of its cases,” during a period in which the statewide average was five percent. A lawyer representing the families in a class action suit against the county compiled samples of juvenile arrest and detention records over an 11-year period, suggesting that 500 children had been wrongly arrested by the sheriff’s department alone. The same data suggested that the juvenile detention center’s “filter system” had improperly locked up children an estimated 1,500 times, Knight and Armstrong reported in their first report.
The reports document the unchecked power and punitive orientation of Donna Scott Davenport, a Rutherford county juvenile court judge, and Lynn Duke, whom Davenport appointed to direct the county’s juvenile detention center. Davenport, ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio reported, is driven by her sense of a breakdown in morals. “I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,” she told a local newspaper. As Knight and Armstrong noted, “There’s no jury in juvenile court, so Davenport decides the facts as well as the law.”
Duke established the juvenile detention center’s “filter system” in 2008.
Under the system, Knight and Armstrong reported, detention center staff can keep a child locked up for being “unruly,” which is defined as being “a TRUE threat.” That term, however, is not defined, so, in Knight and Armstrong’s words, “any child, no matter the charge, who is considered a ‘TRUE threat,’ however that’s interpreted, can end up being locked up.”
The state of Tennessee prohibits pre-trial detention of children unless they fall into one of six very specific categories. Although it is highly unusual for a judge to direct arrest procedures to this degree, Davenport bragged in interviews about illegally incarcerating children for cursing, saying, “Was I in violation? Heck, yes.”
Although Rutherford County stopped publishing data on juvenile detention rates after parents filed a class action lawsuit against the county, ProPublica’s independent analysis showed that from 2010 through 2017, Black children accounted for 36 percent of the children locked up by the county; from 2018 through mid-2021, the figure for Black children detained had risen to 58 percent. As Knight, Armstrong, and Hannah Fresques reported in December 2021, “In most of the country, the racial disparity has been decreasing. Rutherford County, meanwhile, has gone the opposite direction.”
In addition to coverage by Nashville Public Radio and NPR’s All Things Considered, the story of juvenile injustice in Rutherford County, Tennessee has received some corporate news coverage. For example, Forbes published a brief summary of ProPublica’s report, ABC News interviewed a lawyer involved, and MSNBC ran two short segments about it, including a segment for the weekend program American Voices with Alicia Menendez and another by Ali Velshi.
Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong, “Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge.” ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio, October 8, 2021.
Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong, “Outrage Grows Over Jailing of Children as Tennessee University Cuts Ties With Judge Involved,” ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio, October 13, 2021.
Brooke Stephenson, “We Reported on a County That Has Jailed Kids for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Readers Reacted,” ProPublica, October 15, 2021.
Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong, “Tennessee Children Were Illegally Jailed. Now Members of Congress Are Asking For an Investigation,” ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio, October 20, 2021.
Meribah Knight, Ken Armstrong, and Hannah Fresques, “New Documents Prove Tennessee County Disproportionately Jails Black Children, and It’s Getting Worse,” ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio, December 30, 2021.
Student Researcher: Annie Koruga (Ohlone College)
Faculty Advisor: Robin Takahashi (Ohlone College)