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This county arrested and detained children more than anywhere else in Tennessee

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

On a sunny Friday afternoon in Rutherford County, Tenn., three police officers showed up at an elementary school. They were there to arrest four girls, all of them Black, who allegedly observed a playground fight that had broken out a few weeks earlier. In total, 11 children were arrested, some only for watching the fight and not stopping it. That's just one alarming story of what is a much bigger pattern of arrests and detention of children in Rutherford County. You see, in Tennessee, only 5% of children who are referred to juvenile court are detained. But in Rutherford County, that figure is 48%.

Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio and Ken Armstrong of ProPublica recently published an investigation into all of this. And Meribah Knight joins us now. Welcome.

MERIBAH KNIGHT, BYLINE: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: Can we just start with this incident that we described at this elementary school in Rutherford County? It was five years ago. I understand 11 children were arrested. What exactly happened? And what were these kids who were arrested charged with?

KNIGHT: Yeah. So there were four girls at the elementary school, like you talked about. They were charged with criminal responsibility, which turned out to not even be a real crime. What they were being charged with was criminal responsibility for the conduct of another for watching a schoolyard fight. I should actually correct myself. It's not even a schoolyard. It was off school grounds, but it was a scuffle. And they watched it. And they didn't intervene. And they were then charged with criminal responsibility.

CHANG: A fictitious charge known as criminal responsibility.

KNIGHT: Yeah. So it's a prosecutorial theory, but it's not an actual charge. So if you were going to use that, you'd say charge them with assault because they didn't intervene and someone was assaulted, which is obviously a very far stretch.

CHANG: And as your reporting shows, this isn't even an isolated incident, right? Like, this county has been arresting and detaining kids at a much higher rate than anywhere else in Tennessee.

KNIGHT: Yeah. So like you said, these arrests took place in Rutherford County, which, as our story outlines, had been illegally arresting and jailing kids for years, all under the watch of Judge Donna Scott Davenport. Judge Davenport is the only elected juvenile court judge the county has ever had. She's been in power since 2000. She oversees the courts. She oversees the juvenile jail. And up until this incident, she had directed police on what she called our process for arresting children. Basically, every child arrested, even for minor things like truancy, must first go to the jail, the judge told law enforcement.

CHANG: OK. So let's explain in more detail exactly how this is happening in Rutherford County. Not only are children getting arrested in part because of bogus charges like criminal responsibility, but they're being detained through - what kinds of justifications after those arrests?

KNIGHT: Yeah. So once the children are arrested and they had been brought to the juvenile detention center under the orders of Judge Davenport, they were then subjected to something called the filter system. And the filter system was a policy that was put in place by the jailer, Lynn Duke, that was catching so many children because the only mechanism that they had to decide if they're going to keep them was whether this child was a true threat. And...

CHANG: What's a true threat?

KNIGHT: It was never defined in the manual. It was open to interpretation. And you can see where that would be problematic.

CHANG: Exactly.

KNIGHT: So it was these two policies in tandem - the fact that every child arrested was brought to the detention center, and then the fact that once they got to the detention center, they were subjected to this overly broad assessment of whether they should be kept. That created this dragnet for children.

CHANG: OK. So you have described these two forces that have contributed to this disproportionately high rate of children being caught up in the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County. I know that there has been a class action lawsuit that just got settled this past summer. What has changed then at all in Rutherford County as a result of that litigation?

KNIGHT: Well, the filter system has been stopped. A federal judge intervened and said, yes, this is illegal and it must stop. The arrest policy is not followed any longer by the sheriff's department or the Murfreesboro Police. So in that respect, the arresting and bringing children to the detention center directly has stopped. What did not change and, in fact, what went up were the children they were detaining from other counties. And they make money off of those children. So, in fact, while the injunction hurt the numbers for their own children coming through - and by hurt, I mean, they lessened them - what also did it to their benefit was callow them to market their facility to other counties. And their revenue began to surge.

CHANG: I mean, where do things go from here then? How do people bring greater accountability and oversight to Rutherford County?

KNIGHT: So the fact is is that Judge Davenport is still at the top of this. She is still overseeing the juvenile court of Rutherford County. The jailer, Lynn Duke, is still the director of the detention facility. And really, the only way for change to happen is for voters to speak. Judge Davenport is up for reelection this coming summer. If she has a challenger, maybe she could be voted out, but that's really the only option.

CHANG: Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio. Thank you so much for your tremendous reporting.

KNIGHT: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.