Tennessee judge who routinely jailed children announced she's retiring but traumatized ex-detainees say she's leaving the bench to 'avoid guilt'

·5 min read
  • Juvenile Court Judge Donna Scott Davenport from Rutherford County, Tennessee announced she is retiring.

  • Davenport faced criticism last year after reports she spearheaded policies for illegally arresting and detaining children.

  • Her retirement announcement comes one day after state legislators proposed a resolution to remove her from the bench.

A Tennessee juvenile court judge who received backlash for routinely arresting and jailing children has announced she plans to retire this year.

Judge Donna Scott Davenport, Rutherford County's Juvenile Court Judge, said she does not plan to seek reelection for the position that she has held since 2000.

Judge Donna Scott Davenport.
Judge Donna Scott Davenport announced she is retiring after she faced criticism for creating policies for illegally arresting and detaining children.rutherfordcountytn.gov

"After prayerful thought and talking with my family, I have decided not to run for re-election after serving more than twenty-two years on the bench," Davenport said in a statement. Her office did not respond to requests for comment.

"I will always look back at my time as Judge as one of the greatest honors of my life, and I am so proud of what this Court has accomplished in the last two decades and how it has positively affected the lives of young people and families in Rutherford County," she said. "I wish my successor the best and hope that this job provides them the same fulfillment it has provided me over the years."

Davenport's term ends in September. Her retirement announcement comes just one day after state legislators in Tennessee issued a resolution to remove her from the bench. Thus far, two candidates have announced they are running to fill her position.

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A system of illegally jailing children

Last October, an extensive report by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio found that Davenport orchestrated a system to arrest and jail children, many of whom were Black.

Davenport utilized a "process" that included an "always arrest" policy, in which children were arrested by police and taken to a juvenile detention center where a jailer – who was appointed by Davenport – used a "filter system" to decide which children to hold. The children later appear before Davenport in juvenile court.

Jacob Somers, who told Insider Davenport threatened to lock him up until he was 18 if he did not "straighten (his) shit," said the judge appeared to be "retiring to avoid guilt."

Somers was one of nearly 1,500 plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Rutherford County that was settled for $11 million.

Kyle Mothershead, one of the attorneys in the class-action lawsuit, told Insider said hundreds of claims for settlement money were submitted to the claims administrator following the lawsuit. Plaintiffs who were illegally arrested may get $1,000, and those who were illegally detained may get about $4,800, he said.

Mothershead also noted the "filter system" used by jailers to decide which children to detain is no longer in place at Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center. A 2017 preliminary injunction on the system was made permanent as part of the settlement agreement for the lawsuit.

"The 'Always Arrest' policy is no longer in effect either. This was not the result of a court order, but rather the law enforcement agencies changing their juvenile arrest policies in response to our lawsuit," Mothershead said.

Former child detainees demand accountability

Akira Lawrence, 22, told Insider she was arrested dozens of times between ages 11 to 17 and said she appeared many times before Davenport. She said none of the charges against her were for drugs or violence.

"We were treated like animals, and we were just kids," Lawrence said. "I was treated like I murdered someone, and that was never the case. They acted like I was just horrible."

Lawrence said she was traumatized by her experience at Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center and it was one of the reasons why she moved out of the county. "I have PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from my childhood there," she said.

Lawrence said Davenport retiring means there is no accountability for how children like her were treated.

"There's no way that they should just let her retire," Lawrence said. "How could you say that you helped us?"

Following initial reports of Davenport's practices while on the bench, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called for a review of the judge. Such a review would be conducted by the Board of Judicial Conduct, which can file public reprimands on judges as well as file formal charges. Davenport received a public reprimand in 2016 after she referred to a parent as a "sneaky snake" in court and called his attorneys "conniving."

Barbara Peck, the communications director for the board, previously told Insider that she cannot comment on whether there is an investigation into Davenport due to confidentiality.

"If an investigation leads to public disciplinary action, such as a public reprimand, the reprimand will be posted on the board's webpage. If formal charges are filed against a judge, that would likewise be made public."

In a comment to Insider, Peck said the board loses jurisdiction to reprimand or charge a judge if they retire.

"Once a judge retires or resigns, the Board of Judicial Conduct loses jurisdiction and cannot take any further action in a pending matter. Thus, it is not possible to formally charge a judge with an ethics violation or for discipline to be imposed once a judge leaves office. Sometimes, however, a resignation or retirement is the end result of an investigation or the form of discipline imposed," Peck said.

For Lawrence, the news of Davenport retiring seemingly without consequences made her feel "helpless." She said that the judge's comments on how she "positively affected the lives of young people" were simply false.

"It's not positively. I'm about to cry. It hasn't really positively affected families at all," Lawrence said. "I can't believe this is happening, and there's nothing I can do."

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