For two decades, children in Rutherford County, near Nashville, Tennessee, have been illegally locked in juvenile detention centers after being charged with crimes, sometimes imaginary. The youngest were seven years old.

A long investigation published by the American media ProPublica this Friday, October 8 reveals the existence of a “filter system” put in place from 2008, under the direction of judge Donna Scott Davenport, which left to the discretion of the guards decision to take an arrested child to the juvenile detention center or to release him. However, the law applied in the state of Tennessee only allows the detention of children in specific circumstances.

A judge in smell of holiness

Donna Scott Davenport, the county’s sole juvenile court judge, in office since 2000, gradually implemented a policy that children accused of crimes were to be taken to a detention center, either because they had been arrested by the authorities or because they had been dropped off by their parents.

According to the last available report from 2014, in Rutherford County, 48% of children whose cases were referred to juvenile court that year were jailed, when the average in the state of Tennessee was 5%.

Davenport’s weight over the jurisdiction of his county is considerable, and in part explains the large-scale application of this hard line against minors. In fact, the appointment of magistrates as well as the approval of the policies of the detention center fall under its authority. She also participates on a monthly basis in the program of a local radio station, where she promotes her repressive policy towards minors, and qualifies herself as “County mother”, which would be invested with «mission divine» for the community.

Prison as a rule

In April 2016, a small fight between two boys aged 5 and 6 and a third taller on a basketball court outside the school resulted in the arrest, a week later, of eleven children. Black, aged 8 to 12, they are arrested by the police at school and at their home: the 8-year-old child, arrested by mistake, is released, but out of the ten others – four girls and six boys – six are handcuffed, and four boys are transferred to a detention center. For watching the argument, they are accused of “Criminal responsibility for the conduct of another”, a crime that does not exist under state law.

The families mobilized and organized a class action lawsuit against the county of Rutherford, which ended in 2017 when the latter agreed to pay compensation of $ 397,500 to the children unjustly accused. A second recourse makes it possible to put an end to the “filter system” which had been in operation for 9 years.

Chrystal Templeton, the officer who made the arrests, is suspended for three days, while the head of the juvenile detention center, Lynn Duke, and Judge Davenport remain in office.

In total, lawyers for the family of EJ, one of the children arrested at the time, aged 10, estimate that from the start of Davenport’s tenure until 2017, nearly 1,500 children have been locked up because of the “filter system”, and that around 500 were allegedly arrested on null and illegal grounds. These estimates only take into account arrests passing through the sheriff’s office, without considering those that may have been carried out by other law enforcement agencies in the county.

By examining several files, the lawyers identified more than 50 children imprisoned for offenses that would not be considered as such if they were adults: indiscipline, absenteeism, running away …

Crime pays

Imprisoning children is also a lucrative business for Rutherford County, which contracts with 39 other counties to house underage prisoners in their 64 beds, at a cost of $ 175 per day. At a monthly meeting of the county commission’s public safety committee, Lynn Duke, the director of Rutherford Detention Center, congratulated herself on doing a lot of business with certain counties.

The budget dedicated to juvenile services, which includes that of court and detention center staff, increased from $ 962,444 in 2005 to $ 3.69 million in 2020. The annual salary of Judge Davenport, already a candidate for a new mandate, amounts to 176,000 dollars, while that of Lynn Duke is 98,000 dollars.

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