Last week, Rutherford County’s embattled juvenile court judge announced she is retiring at the end of her term and will not seek reelection this summer. WPLN News and ProPublica have been investigating the system that Judge Donna Scott Davenport oversaw for more than two decades.
WPLN’s Meribah Knight sat down with WPLN host Nina Cardona to explain what Davenport’s departure means — and what it doesn’t — for the children of Rutherford County.
Nina Cardona: Lawyers allege in court records that at least some 1,400 children were illegally arrested and detained by Rutherford County’s juvenile court. You talked to some of their families last week. How did they react to this news?
Meribah Knight: Overall, what I’m hearing is that families are thankful that there will be a change in leadership. But they wish this had come much sooner. And the nature of Davenport’s retirement is pretty cushy. She is going to be on the bench for another seven and a half months. She will get her pension. So, it’s not all that satisfying for them.
Nina Cardona: Some of the reaction to her retirement, especially in political circles, seems to treat it as the de facto end to the problems that have happened in Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system. But the judge is just one person. How much of a change is it, really, for her to depart?
Meribah Knight: Yes, many folks have acted as if this is closure. And it’s anything but. Yes, there will be a new juvenile court judge come September. But Judge Davenport is a small part of a much larger system. And she’s a reflection of that system and its culture. Yes, the buck stopped at the judge. But as our story outlined, there were so many players in this — the judge, the jailer, local law enforcement and the list goes on.
There were all the people who helped make this system run the way it did. The officials who looked the other way; the county commissioners who funded it and pushed the jail to bring in more revenue; the law enforcement agencies who blindly followed Davenport’s orders to bring all children to the jail for processing, and the state agencies that inspected the jail and never flagged the illegal filter system or scrutinized the annual reports that plainly revealed the county’s staggering rate of detention.
So, yes, Davenport will be gone. But this is so much bigger than Davenport.
Nina Cardona: In Judge Davenport’s statement she said she was “so proud of what this court has accomplished in the last two decades and how it has positively affected the lives of young people and families in Rutherford County.” But the county just had to pay out $6 million in claims over illegal arrest and detention policies. Has anyone in the system admitted that they played a part in the wrongdoing?
Meribah Knight: By and large, no. Overall, there is a general lack of reflection. For example: In 2016, Rutherford County faced a class action lawsuit over its use of solitary confinement of children, which a federal judge ultimately called “inhumane.” And even after an initial federal injunction, the jail’s director refused to admit they ever used solitary confinement.
I’m going to quote the director because I think it’s important to get it right, but she told county commissioners, “You’re getting all your food and your snacks and your phone calls and your visitation. Some people think that’s solitary and some people don’t.”
So, you see there is this total unwillingness to admit they’ve done anything wrong.
Nina Cardona: So, going back to the children who were affected by this system, if Davenport’s departure isn’t solving the problem in their minds, what do they want to see?
Meribah Knight: You know, when I was reporting this story, I spoke with one young man with developmental disabilities who was arrested and jailed illegally. He was also placed in solitary confinement for long periods of time when he was 15 years old. And it was clear to see the physical and emotional toll that takes on a young mind. As we talked, he struggled to sit still. He said he talks to himself. He needs constant stimulation. And when he filed the solitary confinement lawsuit against the county — seeking no financial compensation — he wrote to the court, “I hope this never happens again!!”
And I think that’s what most families feel. They hope this never happens again.
The truth of the matter is that there are terrible facts in this story. Facts that make your gut ache. But I want to highlight another fact: Children stood up and put their grievances on paper for the world to see. They filed seven different lawsuits that created real change in this county. They were upstanders. They fought back. And they held those who had overpowered them to account. And for me, that is where hope lives — in the strength and resilience of these children. In the end, it wasn’t the adults who changed this system. It was the children.
WPLN News reached out to Judge Donna Scott Davenport numerous times to ask for her comment. She has declined to speak with us.