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In 2016, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, 11 kids were arrested, the youngest just 8 years old. The arrested kids were accused of not stopping a scuffle involving two 5- and 6-year-old boys who were throwing punches at a larger boy. At least one of the kids arrested did try to step in. Some of the others hadn’t even been there. More importantly, the formal charge approved by judicial commissioners — “criminal responsibility for conduct of another” — is not even a crime.
The police arrested four of the kids directly from school. Their principal, Tammy Garrett, collected three of them from their classrooms at an officer’s insistence.
Garrett and the assistant principal were crying, as were the girls, as police arrested the children and handcuffed two of them.
Another girl, a fourth grader, was collected from her school bus and brought back into the school. Scared and confused, she begged for her mother — then she threw up.
Of the 11 kids who were arrested, four were jailed at least overnight, some for days.
Think about how that experience would shatter a kid’s sense of safety. Imagine yourself as a child, turning to your principal for help and seeing her looking just as helpless as you. Imagine begging for your mom and being refused. Imagine being handcuffed, isolated from all the adults you trust to protect you, and put in a holding cell. And imagine how you feel later, when almost none of the adults face consequences for locking up you and your friends for no good reason, as happened in this case. You might end up with the impression that the way you were treated was OK.
After ProPublica published the story of Rutherford County and the judge behind its extraordinarily punitive (and often illegal) juvenile justice system, people quickly began to make it clear: It was not OK.
When one of the reporters on the piece, Ken Armstrong, wrote a Twitter thread about the story, it was shared more than 90,000 times. Over and over again, readers described the story as “sickening,” “outrageous” and “terrifying.” One wrote, “Stop the world I need to get off and vomit.”
Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison tweeted, “What the hell is wrong with folks?!” One Tennessee state senator called the situation a “nightmare.” Another wrote, “This is a mess and we must do far better.” A Tennessee state representative tweeted, “Our Democratic caucus will work to make sure this never happens again.”
George Takei, an actor who spent much of his childhood in American internment camps, wrote simply: “No words.”
The president of the NAACP’s legal defense fund called for a federal civil rights investigation.
Within four days, the president of Middle Tennessee State University notified faculty and staff that Donna Scott Davenport, the juvenile court judge at the heart of the investigation, “is no longer affiliated with the University.” Davenport had been an adjunct instructor at the school, where she taught a course on juvenile justice for many years.
So far everyone involved in this case either still holds their jobs in the justice system or left those jobs of their own accord. Davenport is up for reelection next year (she previously said she would like to run for another eight-year term.) She declined, through a spokesperson for Rutherford County, to be interviewed for our initial story.
The story of Rutherford County’s broken juvenile justice system does not end with these 11 kids, but they certainly exemplify it. I strongly encourage you to read the full story. In the meantime, here were a few points that stood out to me:
Yearslong Local Policy Failures Require Parallel Failures in State Oversight.
For years, Rutherford County used an illegal system, crafted by the director of its juvenile detention center, Lynn Duke, to decide when to jail kids before their detention hearing. It allowed the facility to hold kids for days based on whether staff deemed them “unruly.” The system defined “unruly” as “a TRUE threat” but didn’t define a “TRUE threat” at all, giving staff vast discretion in who to hold. For at least nine years, this “filter system” was a written procedure that was available to state inspectors, but it was never flagged. Instead, the inspection reports focused on details like how little graffiti there was in the jail.
The reporters requested an interview with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services’ longtime director of licensing to ask how inspectors could have missed what was going on. The department refused to make the director available.
In May 2017, in response to a lawsuit brought by the families of children who had been illegally detained, a federal judge ordered the county to stop using the filter system, saying it “departs drastically” from ordinary standards. By being subjected to “illegal detention,” he wrote, “children in Rutherford County are suffering irreparable harm every day.”
The county settled the lawsuit but denies any wrongdoing.
Jailing Kids May be Counterproductive.
Davenport, a Rutherford County juvenile court judge, has a monthly radio segment where she frequently talks about how the current breakdown in morals and parenting is the worst she’s ever seen, and she has said that children need consequences. “Being detained in our facility is not a picnic at all,” she said. “It’s not supposed to be. It’s a consequence for an action.” Armstrong and fellow reporter Meribah Knight reviewed more than 60 hours of her radio show, and you can listen to excerpts from it in the story.
But multiple studies have found that jailing kids can do considerable harm.
The lawyers who brought the lawsuit against the county cited research showing that kids who have been arrested and jailed are more likely to commit crimes in the future. They’re more likely to struggle in school and to struggle with drugs and alcohol. Detention also makes kids more likely to hurt themselves.
One boy, Dylan, who had been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and was experiencing suicidal ideation after the death of his uncle, was jailed for three days for stealing small items from cars and subjected to extremely restrictive conditions. It was his first offense. He says his mental health was much worse after he was released. In the 16 months after he was detained, he tried to kill himself three times.
Profit and Incarceration Are Intertwined in Rutherford County.
Rutherford County doesn’t just jail its own kids. It also contracts with other counties to detain their children, charging $175 a day per kid. “If we have empty beds, we will fill them with a paying customer,” Duke said at one public meeting. (She declined to be interviewed by our reporters.)
At one of those meetings, a public safety commissioner said it would be “cool” if, instead of being a cost center, the jail could be a “profit center.”
Although the lawsuit resulted in Rutherford County’s locking up fewer of its own kids, the county continues to expand its juvenile justice system. It added more staff and distributed a marketing video titled “What Can the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center Do For You?” with b-roll of children in black-and-white striped uniforms set to saxophone music.
As of this year, 39 counties contract with Rutherford, as does the U.S. Marshals Service.