Tennessee Court Judge Illegally Incarcerated Black Children For Years

By Linnette Cruz, 11th Grade

Based on research released during the month of October by WPLN News and ProPublica, eleven members of Congress submitted a letter to the US Department of Justice on October 13th, 2021, requesting that it start an inquiry into the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County. This is due to the fact that in 2016, eleven black children–including those under the age of 12– were reportedly arrested for not intervening in a videotaped brawl. Thanks to these reports five years later, the public is now bringing awareness of the injustices committed by juvenile court judge Donna Scott Davenport. 

These young children were charged with “criminal responsibility for conduct of another.” It is important to note that these were 8-year-old children, meaning that even if they wanted to stop the fight, they couldn’t, and that this person is still a child today. 

What is overwhelmingly surprising in this case is the fact that Judge Davenport had established her own system of dealing with minors that was in direct opposition to what other courts in the state were doing for years. This inequity started way back in 2003, when Davenport authorized Rutherford County officers to take children into custody and place them in detention centers so that they can be processed and then released. Child after child, she separated these minors from their parents for hours or even days by incarcerating them with no substantial proof that shows that they even committed a crime at all. Personal accounts from the victims tell us that they were even subjected to humiliation in the form of showering naked in front of strangers and even having their prescribed medicine taken away from them. 

According to records from the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, minors were imprisoned on average in 5% of juvenile cases in the state of Tennessee in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. Consistent with this data, minors were imprisoned in 48% of incidents in Rutherford County under Judge Davenport.

After a class-action lawsuit was filed, it was concluded that this practice was alleged to be unlawful and a violation of Tennessee law. In any normal situation, constitutional state law declares that the correct procedure for juvenile misdemeanor offenses is for officers to release the child with a citation or summons rather than into custody with no representation. The lawsuit states that this practice incontrovertibly led to the illegal arrest or detainment of thousands of children. 

One of the victims of Judge Davenport’s abuse of power was Dylan Geerts, who recounts being kept awake for “30 something hours by the staff.” After four days of house arrest, he was freed. Unfortunately so, the police officers who were involved in the events in 2016 only got short-term sanctions. 

Many people argue that the policemen and everyone who was involved in this series of events should have been called out for their prejudice against these children. Being that this was their first offense–and the so-called ‘crimes’ were not even extreme–, the minors shouldn’t have been punished the way they were by Rutherford County. 

This case truly goes to show how time and time again, the state, county, and the criminal justice system as a whole has failed families and our future generations. Systemic racism is not a hoax. Although this case happened in 2016, the media seems to buzz again due to the fact that Donna Scott Davenport is still the judge for the Rutherford County Juvenile Court despite her past wrongdoings. Not only this, but her term seems to be coming to an end in 2022, and can win reelection once more. Although an $11 million settlement was made in June of this year and the thousands of children who were affected by Davenport got their compensation for the trauma they had to endure, this still does not mean that Davenport could be overlooked again. We cannot simply let this act of hate go and live on with our lives as if this never happened. On top of letting her racist ideals blind her into creating a system in which she could incarcerate innocent people for no reason whatsoever, she also targeted young children who would be scarred due to experiencing such emotional trauma. As long as Judge Davenport is in power, we mustn’t let her go unscathed until justice is served. 

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