A Tennessee judge created and used policies - and a nonexistent law - to jail children, investigation finds

·3 min read
Judge Donna Scott Davenport.
Judge Donna Scott Davenport is accused of creating policies that led to children being illegally arrested and detained. rutherfordcountytn.gov
  • A court judge used policies to jail and detain kids without sufficient cause, a probe found.

  • A county settled an $11 million suit after lawyers alleged the policy departed from Tennessee law.

  • The policy has ended, and Donna Scott Davenport remains judge at Rutherford County Juvenile Court.

A Tennessee juvenile-court judge orchestrated a system to arrest and jail children, many of whom were Black and some who were as young as 8 and 9 years old, an investigation by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio found.

The report, published on October 8, said juvenile-court Judge Donna Scott Davenport of Rutherford County created a "process" that involved arresting children, taking them into custody at a detention center, and then filing charges against them.

This differed from the norm in Tennessee, where police would typically serve court summonses to children and their parents instead of arresting children and taking them into custody, the investigation found.

Davenport declined an interview with ProPublica and did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. Representatives from Rutherford County and from the state judicial system also did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.

Under Davenport's system, in 2016, 11 Black children were arrested and 10 were charged with "criminal responsibility for conduct of another" after they were said to have failed to stop a fight that was captured on video. But the attorney who represented some of the children said "criminal responsibility for conduct of another" is not a charge under Tennessee law.

Rather, it's a prosecutorial theory, the attorney Frank Ross Brazil told ABC News.

"So, that being applied as a charge in and of itself is unlawful," said Brazil, who did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment on Sunday.

Davenport cultivated a public profile as a disciplinarian, discussing her work in interviews and on her monthly segment on WGNS radio. She even referred to herself as the "mother of the county," the joint investigation found.

"I know I'm harsh, I'm very harsh. I like to think I'm fair, but I'm tough," Davenport said in a 2015 profile in the Daily News Journal. "Juvenile Court is all about urgency - we are not dealing with the offense, we are dealing with the offender. We work on rehabilitation."

Davenport's "process" was challenged in a class-action lawsuit that involved over 1,000 children that alleged that Rutherford County violated children's rights by arresting and detaining them without sufficient cause. A judge involved in the case said that "children in Rutherford County are suffering irreparable harm every day" from a policy that "departs drastically" from the norm, Nashville Public Radio reported.

The case was settled in June, and the ruling permanently halted the juvenile court's use of Davenport's policies. Rutherford County agreed to pay up to $11 million, including $7.75 million to the children who were arrested and detained, the investigation found.

About 200 of the 1,500 children included in the class-action lawsuit have filed a claim to get the settlement money, News 4 Nashville reported last week.

Following ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio's investigation, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said that "the appropriate judicial authorities should issue a full review" of Davenport.

As of October 12, Davenport was no longer teaching at Middle Tennessee State University, her alma mater, where she was an adjunct professor, Nashville Public Radio reported.

The outlet also reported that the president of the university said Davenport, "whose actions overseeing Rutherford County Juvenile Court have recently drawn attention in national media reports, is no longer affiliated with the University."

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