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Tennessee county facing backlash for history of illegal arrests of children

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

An update now on one Tennessee county's pattern of putting children in jail. Member station WPLN and ProPublica investigated Rutherford County. And since publishing their findings, the story has gone national. It calls for reform, federal investigations and, of course, more scrutiny of the juvenile court system. WPLN's Meribah Knight is one of the lead reporters and joins us now. Meribah, thanks so much for being with us.

MERIBAH KNIGHT, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And, please, for our national audience, tell us what led to this investigation.

KNIGHT: Well, it all started with the mass arrest of 11 children in 2016. It was over a video of a playground scuffle that was posted to YouTube. It showed a 5-year-old throwing feeble punches at a 6-year-old who was walking away. The police didn't arrest the kids fighting. They were too young. But they did arrest the kids looking on, who range from 8 to 14 years old. Their charge - watching the fight and not trying to stop it. It turns out that incident revealed a much larger pattern of illegal arrests and detention of children in this county just south of Nashville.

SIMON: Tell us about the judge who seems to be at the center of this investigation.

KNIGHT: Yeah. Judge Donna Scott Davenport is her name, and 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. She has immense power, and she wields that power in astounding ways. For example, until this mass arrest, she 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. Now, telling law enforcement what to do is an exceptional overreach. And Davenport has an outsized personality. She even has her own radio show, where she talks about what she does.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONNA SCOTT DAVENPORT: I've locked up one 7-year-old in 13 years, and that was a heartbreak. But 8- and 9-year-olds and older are very common now.

KNIGHT: And Davenport also appointed and oversees the head jailer, Lynn Duke. And Duke created an illegal policy for locking kids up called the filter system. Her jail locked up any kid it deemed a true threat, and the definition of that is nowhere in the facility's manual. Literally, there's no definition. So officers were locking kids up that they believed were a true threat even when they didn't meet the legal requirements.

SIMON: That clip of Judge Davenport that we just heard was from 2012. As you note, she was elected in 2000. And her words - this was not in secret, was it? Why did this go on for so long?

KNIGHT: Yeah, well, that's what we were trying to figure out in our reporting. And what we found is that the systems of oversight that are in place just were not effective from the county to even the state. The Tennessee Department of Children's Services licenses juvenile jails. And it inspected Rutherford County's jail every year, and not once did it flag this illegal policy for detaining children.

Also, the annual state report that revealed what an outlier Rutherford County was in how many kids it was locking up is no longer published. It hasn't been since 2014. And what that means is that we have no idea what is happening in juvenile courts across the state, how many kids are being locked up and for what. And Rutherford County is just one of 98 courts in Tennessee. Now, there was a flurry of lawsuits, so we got to crack the door open into this one. But there are 97 others.

SIMON: What's happened in the wake of your reporting?

KNIGHT: Well, there have been numerous calls for reform and oversight from lawmakers and the NAACP, and the university where Judge Davenport taught for many years has cut ties with her. So some things have changed, and some things have changed also because of federal intervention. But despite the lawsuits that have been brought against this county and its juvenile court, the judge is still in power and the jailer still runs the detention center. So the people who created the system are still very much in charge. We reached out to each of them repeatedly, and they both declined our requests for interviews.

SIMON: Meribah Knight of member station WPLN in Nashville, thanks so much for your fine reporting.

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