Rutherford County has agreed to pay up to $11 million to settle a large, class-action lawsuit over its policies for arresting and detaining children. The settlement, filed in federal court on Wednesday, is the largest in a string of lawsuits surrounding the county’s juvenile court.
The lawsuit has been five years in the making and represents a class of more than 1,000 children. It alleged that Rutherford County, for more than a decade, was violating the rights of kids by arresting them illegally and placing them in juvenile detention without sufficient grounds.
In 2017, a federal judge sided with the plaintiffs and granted a preliminary injunction, ordering the county to stop its policy for detaining its children. In his order, the judge wrote that Rutherford County’s system for locking up children “departs drastically” from ordinary standards and that “children in Rutherford County are suffering irreparable harm every day.”
The roots of the aggressive policy of arresting and detaining children, outlined in the lawsuits, can be traced back to at least 2003, in a memo written by the county’s juvenile judge, Donna Scott Davenport. The memo had been interpreted to mean that after a summons is issued for a child, law enforcement must always make a physical arrest and take that child to the county’s detention center. At the detention center, a separate policy, also outlined in the lawsuit, allowed children to be detained despite not having the legal grounds to do so.
In tandem, these two practices led to large numbers of children being locked up for minor offenses. State data showed Rutherford County’s juvenile detention rate was nearly 10 times higher than the state average.
Now, the federal court has made that injunction ordering a stop to the detention policy permanent, and Rutherford County will pay out up to $7.75 million to the children, in addition to attorney fees and other costs.