The scandalous way the US criminalizes children

In reading this article about how one county treats children, one cannot help but think that if you wanted to turn young children into hardened criminals, you could not think of a better way. The system seems designed to find ways to arrest children and haul them up before a judge and send them to juvenile detention systems, even when they have not done anything that deserved such harsh treatment.

This story is about eleven young children, one as young as eight, who were arrested for doing nothing more that being spectators to a schoolyard scuffle, the kind of thing that takes place between children all the time, with one of them taking video of it.

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.

Eleven children in all were arrested over the video, including the 8-year-old taken in by mistake. Media picked up the story. Parents and community leaders condemned the actions of police. “Unimaginable, unfathomable,” a Nashville pastor said. “Unconscionable,” “inexcusable,” “insane,” three state legislators said. But Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge focused instead on the state of youth, telling a local TV station: “We are in a crisis with our children in Rutherford County. … I’ve never seen it this bad.”

The police scoured through the laws of Tennessee to find something they thought they could charge the children with. and they found one.

Her search turned up a Tennessee statute defining “criminal responsibility for conduct of another.” It says, in part: A person is “criminally responsible” for an offense committed by another if “the person causes or aids an innocent or irresponsible person to engage in” the offense, or directs another to commit the offense, or “fails to make a reasonable effort to prevent commission of the offense.”

When investigators started looking into this case, they were dismayed at such a decision.

The district attorney for Rutherford County confirmed to the police investigators that there’s no such crime as “criminal responsibility.” “You should never, ever see a charge that says defendant so-and-so is charged with criminal responsibility for the act of another. Period,” he said.

Donna Scott Davenport, the judge in charge of the juvenile court system in Rutherford County, seems like a religious zealot, like many right-wingers who yearn for a different, mythical era.

She sees a breakdown in morals. Children lack respect: “It’s worse now than I’ve ever seen it,” she said in 2012. Parents don’t parent: “It’s just the worst I’ve ever seen,” she said in 2017. On WGNS, Davenport reminisces with the show’s host about a time when families ate dinner together and parents always knew where their children were and what friends they were with because kids called home from a landline, not some could-be-anywhere cellphone. Video games, the internet, social media — it’s all poison for children, the judge says.

Davenport describes her work as a calling. “I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,” she told a local newspaper. The children in her courtroom aren’t hers, but she calls them hers. “I’m seeing a lot of aggression in my 9- and 10-year-olds,” she says in one radio segment.

She has created a system in which police are routinely arresting children and bring them before her where she gets to execute her vision of ‘tough love’, which in her case is just a euphemism for abuse and cruelty

Despite the horrors that have been exposed, she is still in office.


  1. johnson catman says

    Horrifying. Abuse of position and power. Those people should not be in charge of an ant farm, much less a juvenile detention program.

  2. says

    if you wanted to turn young children into hardened criminals, you could not think of a better way.

    The other way is to give them a lot of money and power and teach them nothing about responsibility or empathy.

    The US is a fucking shitshow of a country, though. Nothing it does surprises me anymore.

  3. Allison says

    I wish I could say I’m shocked. But it’s merely a more blatant version of what goes on all over the USA. (The USA is a pretty barbaric country, IMHO.)

    I see this as a confluence of

    1. Black children are perceived as more criminal/dangerous than white children for the same deeds. (Actually, the same is true for Black adults.)

    2. The South has a tradition of harsh and punitive child-rearing. (I remember when I told my therapist, who grew up in NYC, what was seen as normal discipline when I was a child in Virginia, she was horrified.) Actually, that also applies to adults, especially poor and Black ones. Cf. Sheriff Arpaio.

    3. Racism — when it comes to Black people, the “justice” system is mainly about control and intimidation, much like the Slave Patrols back before the Civil War.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    If we say “we ought have instructional programs that teach kids not to bully each other and fight all the time,” conservatives say “Kids have been picking on each other for centuries! Kids will be kids!”

    Then they turn around and arrest these kids for being bystanders.

    I’d say that there is no consistency whatsoever to their attitudes. But then, there is the skin color of the kids in question. So I guess there is consistency after all. Sigh.

  5. consciousness razor says

    For stomach-purging purposes only: watch the marketing video for the detention center linked near the end of the ProPublica article.

    The county has created a marketing video titled “What Can the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center Do For You?” Over saxophone music and b-roll of children in black-and-white striped uniforms, Davenport narrates. She touts the center’s size (43,094 square feet), employees (“great”), access to interstates (I-24, I-65, I-40) and number of cells, which she refers to as “single occupancy rooms.” “Let us be your partner for the safe custody and well-being of the detained youth of your community,” Davenport says.

    Thirty-nine counties now contract with Rutherford, according to a report published this year. So does the U.S. Marshals Service.

    How did Rutherford County get away with illegally jailing kids for so long?

    The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services licenses juvenile detention centers. But its inspectors didn’t flag Rutherford County’s illegal filter system, which was right there, in black and white. We collected nine inspection reports from when Duke put the system in until a federal judge ordered it out. Not once did an inspector mention the jail’s process for deciding which kids to hold. “There was very little graffiti,” an inspector wrote in 2010. “Neat and clean,” the same inspector wrote in 2011, 2013 and 2014. Two inspection reports in 2016 said, “There were no concerns regarding the program or staff at the detention center.”

    We requested an interview with the department’s longtime director of licensing, to ask how inspectors could miss this. The department refused to make him available.

    The state’s failures don’t end there.

    Tennessee’s Administrative Office of the Courts collects crucial data statewide. In 2004, the consultant hired by Rutherford County used that data to sound an alarm: Rutherford County was locking up kids at more than three times the state average.

    But then, Rutherford County stopped reporting this data. From 2005 to 2009, the county had 11,797 cases of children being referred to juvenile court. How many were locked up? The county claimed to have no idea. “Unknown,” it reported, for 90% of the cases. The county’s data, now meaningless, couldn’t be used against it.

    Don’t think this is an isolated problem though. Lots of county governments want to “save taxpayer dollars” (although that’s often offset by jacking up the number of arrests, convictions, etc.), so they come up with similar schemes.

  6. lochaber says

    this is especially rich coming from cops, who I believe have case law precedent that despite being “peace officers”, can not be expected to prevent or stop crimes.

    It comes up a lot in rightwinger/gunknut/self-defense forums, but there is some old case law from the 90s or earlier, where basically the police have no obligation to protect civilians from criminals. I think it was something like a women calling the police about an assailant, and they literally just stood by while she was assaulted (maybe killed?), and were exonerated in later lawsuits?

    this is all I’m finding on a quick google search, which isn’t the case I’m thinking of, but is pretty damned damning by itself (CW: fucking everything, don’t read this shit. Even if you aren’t bothered by traumatic content, still don’t read it…)

    You know, nevermind, I was going to put a link, but it’s really horrid shit, so if you really need to, look up Warren v. District of Columbia

    cops, what a bunch of assholes…

  7. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    Another reason I think that we should try to adopt the standard that (custodial) arrest should be a last resort, usable only when there is significant threat to the community. Most cases, even some violence cases, should be handled by a citation or summons order to appear for trial with no pretrial detention. There shouldn’t be a bail hearing because they shouldn’t be arrested in the first place. Discretionary power invites abuse, and police will abuse it, and so we ought to try to reduce discretionary power of police to the reasonable bare minimum.

    In particular, my standard for lawful arrest would be something like: You can arrest with a warrant for arrest, or with probable cause of an outstanding felony, or where the cop is a personal witness to certain other ongoing violent offenses, or where the cop is a personal witness to an ongoing refusal to cease an ongoing offense. Arrest warrants should typically be issued only for the same plus for failure to appear offenses.

    I have an extreme case to highlight this idea. The case is that if cops show up to a domestic violence call and don’t see any battery themselves, they should be required to go to a judge or magistrate to get a warrant for arrest before arresting the person because they were not personal witnesses and its not a felony offense. My reasoning is that there is minimal harm in waiting, and alternatives exist. They could get the spouse into voluntary protective custody, and if the spouse refuses, the cops could also just camp out outside until they get the arrest warrant.

    The basic idea is that I trust people at the scene a whole lot less than people with no personal attachment to the case, and I trust judges a lot more than cops (but sometimes not all that much), and I “trust” that having a paper trail to hitch documents the reasons for arrest will make it easier to nail cops and police who abuse the system.

  8. mnb0 says

    “send them to juvenile detention system”
    The best way to educate young criminals.

    “She sees a breakdown in morals.”
    I could not agree more. Her morals are totally broken.

    “I’m here on a mission. It’s not a job. It’s God’s mission,”
    Sure she is. Her god is “arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” (I’d never thought that I would quote this quackphilosopher favourably). So her mission is to turn God’s Own Country in the Vale of Tears that according to christian fundies Earthly life is.
    Forget about the Ten Commandments. The only commandment she promotes is thou shall not enjoy; instead thou shall suffer.

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