A few days ago, ProPublic published a long-form piece that began with the story of a bizarre incident in Rutherford County, Tennessee, where four black children at Hobgood Elementary in Murfreesboro were arrested for a nonexistent crime. Kids as young as eight were pulled out of classes and off busses, handcuffed and transported to a children’s jail.
It all began with an investigation of a schoolyard fight video on YouTube. No one was hurt in the fight. By the time of the arrests, the kids who fought were allegedly friends again, and none of the arrested children engaged as combatants in the first place. But the kids were charged with a made-up crime on the say-so of an all-powerful juvenile court judge’s halfwit minion.
The tale is positively Dickensian. The judge is Donna Scott Davenport, who began her career as a cop wannabe, then went to law school and had to take the bar exam five times over nine years before she passed. With an apparent talent for failing upward, Davenport then got herself elected to a newly created juvenile court judge position in 2000.
She’s been running the county’s juvenile justice system as her personal fiefdom ever since, hoovering up public money, building out facilities, hiring henchmen and making up rules. It’s “God’s mission,” she says, publicly. A brief excerpt:
What happened on that Friday and in the days after, when police rounded up even more kids, would expose an ugly and unsettling culture in Rutherford County, one spanning decades. In the wake of these mass arrests, lawyers would see inside a secretive legal system that’s supposed to protect kids, but in this county did the opposite. Officials flouted the law by wrongfully arresting and jailing children. One of their worst practices was stopped following the events at Hobgood, but the conditions that allowed the lawlessness remain. The adults in charge failed. Yet they’re still in charge. Tennessee’s systems for protecting children failed. Yet they haven’t been fixed.
It’s a lengthy article that’s as horrifying as it is hard to summarize, but basically, Davenport created a detention system that stayed busy by illegally jailing an estimated 1,500 children. The detention rate in the county was astronomical, which should have raised red flags, but the state’s oversight is basically nonexistent, and the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services dropped the ball.
Nothing happened to stop this insane situation until the victimized children’s families sued in federal court under a class-action lawsuit. The county had to pay out $11 million for illegally arresting and detaining kids, and the federal judge made them scrap their lawless intake scheme.
You’d think the judgment would get people’s attention. I assume $11 million is a noticeable chunk of the county budget. But no one involved suffered serious professional consequences for their grievously harmful conduct. The same people are still in charge of juvenile justice in the county, and Davenport is now marketing her excess jail capacity to other Tennessee counties.
Davenport plays up the god-bothering angle of her “work.” She emphasizes dog-whistly issues like her policy toward children who come to court with saggy pants, telling local radio listeners she keeps extra belts in the courtroom and makes everyone tuck in their shirts. I’m sure a certain type eats that shit up with a spoon, maybe even at the hefty price of $11 million, since she’s running for reelection again even after a scandal that should have ended her employment around children forever.
Just unbe-fucking-lievable. I was too busy last week to read the piece when it first came out, but it’s the type of long-form journalism that ProPublica excels in, and it’s worth carving out the time to take in and ponder. The piece was produced in partnership with the Nashville NPR station.
As if we didn’t have enough to contend with at the state and federal level, this article made me wonder what other horror stories lurk in the 3K county governments that operate within the U.S. You can read the whole thing here.