A longtime Tennessee juvenile judge used policies deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge to wrongfully arrest and imprison “thousands” of children as young as seven years old without due process, according to court documents.
Rutherford County Juvenile Justice Donna Scott Davenport drafted a “de facto policy” in 2013 later called the “filtering system,” but the practice began around March 2003, according to court documents reviewed by DailyMail.com.
The matter sparked a class action lawsuit filed in 2017 and amended two years later, which was finally settled in June for $11 million after lengthy negotiations that ran from May 2019 to December 2020.
The policy was halted and settlement payouts were split into two classes – wrongly arrested and wrongly detained. Wrongfully arrested would receive about $1,000 each and wrongfully detained would receive about $5,000.
In return, “the county denies any wrongdoing in any of the lawsuits filed against it.”
Davenport created a detention policy to ‘detain children before trial when (a) there was a probable reason that the child had committed a delinquent offence, and (b) staff believed that detention was in the ‘best interests of the child’ used to be.’
What “best interests” means has never been defined and until the digression of the prison. The charges were as minor as truancy, and the ages of the arrested and imprisoned children were seven to nine years old.
In 2013, she began referring to the directive as “the trial,” according to court documents.
During a radio appearance in 2012, Davenport said, “I locked up a 7-year-old in 13 years and that was a heartache. But 8- and 9-year-olds and older are now very common,” according to a news report.
Rutherford County Juvenile Judge Donna Scott Davenport (center) has come under scrutiny for implementing a detention policy that incarcerates children a federal judge found unconstitutional
Davenport is pictured hearing the 2015 opening address at her alma mater Middle Tennessee State University, announcing it was cutting ties with her on Wednesday
The report renewed the investigation into Davenport and the county’s juvenile detention system, throwing a spotlight on specific anecdotes documenting examples of minors being arrested and incarcerated on overzealous — and allegedly fabricated — charges.
In one specific case, children were arrested and thrown in jail under a little-known Tennessee law of “criminal responsibility for the conduct of another” for failing to break up a fight between a five- and a six-year-old, WPLN. . and ProPublica reported.
“Something needs to be done with everyone involved,” Representative Gloria Johnson (D-Knoxville) told WSAV on Wednesday. “I understand they made a law that wasn’t even on the books to allow that.”
“That’s a horrific abuse of power,” Deputy Johnson told the local news station. “We have the Administrative Office of the courts, I think they should take action and investigate.”
Davenport has managed the juvenile justice system since its inception in 2000
Davenport, now 69, grew up in Mount Juliet, a suburb of Nashville, and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro with a criminal justice degree.
She has headed the juvenile justice system since its inception in 2000. She has appointed magistrates and set the rules.
While other elected officials have moved in and out of the district office, Davenport has remained and was expected to rejoin her eight-year term next year.
It is not known whether the settlement and news reports have changed her plans.
The WPLN and ProPublica report showed how Davenport believed her calling is to instill moral values and restore family traditions. She describes her work as a calling.
“I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,” she told a local newspaper, according to the news report.
On Wednesday, Middle Tennessee State University announced it has cut ties with Davenport, who gave the opening address in 2015.
The university said in a statement: “At the university community, Assistant Instructor Judge Donna Scott Davenport, whose actions overseeing Rutherford County Juvenile Court have recently attracted attention in national media reports, is no longer affiliated with the university.”
Neither Rutherford County Mayor Bill Ketron nor Davenport have responded to DailyMail.com’s request for comment.
County and Davenport officials declined to speak to WPLN and ProPublica for their report.
In 2014, 48 percent of cases resulted in children being jailed under Davenport’s supervision. The national average at the time was 5 percent, the report shows.
According to the most recent census data, Rutherford County, Tennessee has a population of approximately 332.00 and approximately 25 percent are under the age of 18.
The children in her courtroom are not hers, but she calls them hers, the report says. She calls herself ‘the mother of the county’.
“I see a lot of aggression in my 9- and 10-year-olds,” she said on a radio segment, according to WPLN and ProPublica.
“You can’t make up the law,” James McCarroll Jr., Senior Pastor of First Baptist Murfreesboro, told WSAV. The church held its first community meeting, following the arrest in 2016 that led to the trial in 2017.
WPLN and ProPublica went looking: how they got information for their in-depth report
“When the four girls were arrested at Hobgood Elementary School in 2016, the media reported on the community’s response and the immediate consequences. But unknown was everything that led to the arrests; what the children, police and school officials, have experienced in their voices; and what the case revealed about the county’s failing juvenile justice system as a whole.
To reconstruct the Hobgood Elementary case, we obtained from public records 38 hours of audio recordings of interviews conducted by the Murfreesboro Police Department as part of their investigation.
That investigation included interviews with the school’s principal, Tammy Garrett, and 13 police officers, including Chrystal Templeton (who was interviewed twice for a total of seven hours), Chris Williams, Albert Miles III, Jeff Carroll and five senior officials.
Other materials we used included a videotape of the children’s scuffle; the final report of the Murfreesboro Police Internal Investigation; the Metro Nashville Police Department’s external assessment; petitions for young people; settlement agreements; and an email Miles wrote to a researcher describing his conversation with a parent.
For this story, we interviewed dozens of people, including children arrested in the April 2016 case and their parents. We interviewed, for the first time, the children (now adults) whose cases sparked class action lawsuits against the county for illegal detention practices and the use of solitary confinement.
We obtained thousands of pages of documents through 56 requests for documents to city, county and state agencies. We obtained more than a dozen personnel records and reviewed court records in seven federal lawsuits.
Donna Scott Davenport declined to be interviewed.
But we’ve listened to or transcribed over 60 hours of her on the radio. We obtained her statement and witness testimony from a class action lawsuit.
Other records we relied on included disciplinary records from the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct; two personnel files; memos and emails; videotaped appearances before the Rutherford County Commission and a search for appellate opinions in cases she had heard before the juvenile court. We have also listened to the pleas of some appeals.
Lynn Duke declined to be interviewed. But she often appears before the county’s public safety commission, and we watched and reviewed 137 of those meetings, from 2009 to 2021.
We got three statements in which she was questioned. We reviewed her personnel file and drew on her testimonials, memos and emails, as well as the detention center’s written procedures.
We contacted each of the police officers mentioned in our story. They each refused to be interviewed or did not respond. The sergeant who oversaw Templeton also declined to be interviewed.
Michael Wrather, a Rutherford County commissioner, declined to be interviewed, except to say he stands behind his public comments praising Davenport.
We relied on reports and sometimes data from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, the Tennessee Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, and the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury.
We used audits of the Prison Rape Elimination Act and the 2004 Pulitzer/Bogard & Associates consultant report. We also leveraged coverage from other news organizations, including Murfreesboro’s Daily News Journal, The Tennessean, the Murfreesboro Post, and the Tennessee Lookout.