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.