Editors’ Note: This is Chapter 4 of a six-chapter expose by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit “newsroom” that produces investigative journalism “with moral force.” The treatment of children in Tennessee reported here, of whatever race, by local officials, is almost unimaginable. VoxFairfax published chapters 1-3 in recent weeks, and will publish chapters 5-6 over the next two weeks. While the juvenile court judge has vowed to run for reelection next year, many in the community are outraged, and vow that she will not win.
By Meribah Knight, Nashville Public Radio, and Ken Armstrong, ProPublica
Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge. Congress is now pushing for an investigation.
Chapter 4: “We Will Hold the Juvenile”
When police took the 12-year-old twins to the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center on Saturday, April 16, 2016, the odds that either would be jailed were long, at least under Tennessee law.
Recognizing the harm that can come from incarcerating kids, Tennessee lawmakers have placed narrow limits on when a child accused of being delinquent can be held in a secure lockdown prior to receiving a court hearing. The child must fit one of six categories, precisely defined. They include being a jail escapee; being wanted elsewhere for a felony offense; or being accused, on substantial evidence, of a crime resulting in serious injury or death.
These two 12-year-olds were charged on negligible evidence with a crime that’s not an actual crime for something in which no one was seriously hurt.
Rutherford County, however, had its own system for deciding whether to keep a child under lock and key. Its written procedure, imprecise and broad, boiled down to whether a child was considered by jailers to be a “TRUE threat.” Jailers allowed the 12-year-old girl to go home. But they locked up her twin brother. Of the 10 children charged in this case, all Black, four were girls and six were boys. Every girl was released. Of the boys, four were jailed, according to court records.
Those four boys became a small part of a big group. In the fiscal year that encompassed April 2016, Rutherford County jailed 986 children for a total of 7,932 days.
J.B.#2, the 12-year-old boy, spent two nights in the detention center, court records show. While there, he was placed in solitary confinement as punishment for standing at his cell’s window, a lawsuit would later allege. We recently interviewed J.B.#2, whose name is Jacorious Brinkley. (He’s 18 now and is OK with us using his name.) A guard, Jacorious said, kept walking past his cell, “saying, like, ‘You can’t, you can’t be by the door. You got to sit down.’”
The person who runs the detention center is Lynn Duke. Davenport initially picked someone else, but her first appointee was arrested on a drug charge only hours after receiving the congratulations of county commissioners. Davenport quickly named Duke as replacement. Duke, a former youth services officer, became director on Jan. 1, 2001, and has remained in that role ever since.
Duke reports to Davenport, but does not consult her daily. In 2005, Duke emailed the judge to say she was feeling guilty for not checking in more. “If you need me to do anything … PLEASE TELL ME!” Duke wrote, to which Davenport replied: “GIRL, if I had any concerns or problems you would hear from me. YOU DO A GREAT JOB!!!!!”
When Duke first became director, the county detained kids in a deteriorated 19th-century jail separate from the court building. A local newspaper editorial bemoaned the sight this produced in the public square: kids, shackled together, in orange jumpsuits, “shuffling along the sidewalk and into the Judicial Building.” “Not that we’re afraid to see juveniles cuffed and heading toward justice, but it is a disturbing thing that could be avoided if juvenile court could be held at the detention center,” the editorial said.
In 2003, Rutherford County hired a consulting firm to help design a new detention center. The next year the firm produced a lengthy report, alerting Rutherford County that it was locking up kids at an exceptionally high rate. Jailing children should be “the last of a number of options,” the firm wrote. Less restrictive alternatives not only save money, they’re “more effective in reducing recidivism,” making them better for children and the community. . . . In 2005, Rutherford County dropped the consulting firm and rejected its advice. The county opted for a 64-bed detention center, with no shelter care.
In 2003, Rutherford County hired a consulting firm to help design a new detention center. The next year the firm produced a lengthy report, alerting Rutherford County that it was locking up kids at an exceptionally high rate. Jailing children should be “the last of a number of options,” the firm wrote. Less restrictive alternatives not only save money, they’re “more effective in reducing recidivism,” making them better for children and the community.
Scale down, the report recommended. Build a 35-bed juvenile detention center, with room to add on later. Also, build shelter care: 10 beds, in a residential setting, for runaways or other kids who pose no real threat to public safety.
In 2005, Rutherford County dropped the consulting firm and rejected its advice. The county opted for a 64-bed detention center, with no shelter care.
The center, attached to new courtrooms for Davenport and her magistrate, opened in 2008. The complex’s cost, coupled with that of a nearby correctional work center for adults, was $23.3 million.
Duke and Davenport have gushed about their new workplace. A “dream come true,” Davenport called it. They offer public tours. “You’ll see booking … bring your family … [have] a little piece of cake,” Davenport told radio listeners in a 2015 segment. They also lauded the jail staff. “We are a well-oiled machine, so there is not much to report,” Duke told county commissioners.
On occasion, news reports have revealed embarrassing staff breakdowns. Duke fired one officer who pepper-sprayed a kid in his cell, after which the kid chased the officer down and beat him up. (The officer, in a statement, said he was confident he followed procedure.)
In another case Duke promoted a corporal to sergeant despite a troubling disciplinary record; Duke then fired the sergeant after she entered a cell, removed her belt and struck a child with it, according to an internal investigation’s findings. The sergeant denied hitting the child, saying she had just removed her belt and made a popping sound with it. (When we pulled this officer’s personnel file, we discovered she had originally been recommended for hire by Davenport, who wrote a letter lauding her “professional demeanor” and “enthusiasm for the world of juvenile law.”)
When the new center opened in 2008, Duke incorporated a “filter system” into the jail’s written manual. When police arrest a child, they bring the child to jail. There, under the system, staff decide whether to hold the child before a detention hearing, which could take place days later. Say a child is hauled in for something minor, like skipping school. Under the filter system, the child would be locked up if deemed “unruly.” But the filter system defines “unruly” simply as “a TRUE threat,” while “TRUE threat” is not defined at all.
Any child, no matter the charge, who is considered a “TRUE threat,” however that’s interpreted, can end up being locked up.
So any child, no matter the charge, who is considered a “TRUE threat,” however that’s interpreted, can end up being locked up.
Plus, the police can weigh in. In a 2013 email, Duke encouraged sheriff’s officers to let her staff know if they wanted a child detained. “If they say I really want this kid held, 9 times out of 10 we can make it happen,” she wrote. She went further in a memo to school resource officers, writing, “Even if we would normally release a juvenile … any time a local law enforcement officer requests a juvenile be detained and agrees to come to court to testify we will hold the juvenile.”
Detention center staff could be quizzed on the filter system when up for promotion, or disciplined for not applying it as written, according to personnel records. The staff member who made her way up to sergeant before being fired said in a deposition, “We were told when in doubt, hold them ’cause it’s better to hold a kid … that should have been released than release a child that should have been held.”
In 2016, Jacorious Brinkley joined in a lawsuit asking for the filter system to be stopped. When Duke was deposed in 2017, she called the system a guideline. Asked when it applied and what it dictated, Duke repeatedly said, “Depends on the situation.”
“Is it your policy or not?” a lawyer asked Duke.
“No. Yes. It — it’s a policy to use it when necessary,” Duke said.
Duke declined our request for an interview, writing in an email, “I appreciate your interest in Rutherford County and its youth, but decline to participate at this time.” Elsewhere she has consistently expressed pride in her operation, saying Rutherford County has the “best juvenile detention center in the state of Tennessee.”
Rutherford County doesn’t just jail its own kids. It also contracts with other counties to detain their children, charging $175 a day. “If we have empty beds, we will fill them with a paying customer,” Duke said at one public meeting.
Duke reports monthly to the county commission’s Public Safety Committee. At these meetings — we watched more than 100, going back 12 years — commissioners have asked regularly about the number of beds filled. “Just like a hotel,” one commissioner said of the jail. “With breakfast provided, and it’s not a continental,” added a second. At another meeting a commissioner said it would be “cool” if, instead of being a cost center, the jail could be a “profit center.”
When, at one meeting, Duke said “we get a lot of business” from a particular county, a commissioner chuckled at Duke’s word choice. “Business,” he said. This brought awkward laughter from other commissioners, leading the committee chair to say: “Hey, it’s a business. Generating revenue.”