A Judge Illegally Jailed Black Children In Tennessee | Crooked Media
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October 13, 2021
What A Day
A Judge Illegally Jailed Black Children In Tennessee

In This Episode

  • For more than a decade, officials in Rutherford County, Tennessee, were arresting kids en masse and placing them in juvenile detention. In this county, children were going to jail over tiny – or even non-existent – infractions. ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio reported this story and Meribah Knight, the lead author, joins us to unpack who allowed this to go on for so long.
  • And in headlines: Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned, Texas Governor Greg Abbott banned any entity in the state from mandating the COVID vaccine, and the NBA’s Kyrie Irving will not play in any games for the Brooklyn Nets until he’s vaccinated.


Show Notes

  • ProPublica: “Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge” – https://bit.ly/3v7F4vd





Priyanka Aribindi: It’s Wednesday, October 13th. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast that is also the official soundtrack to leaves turning.


Priyanka Aribindi: It is apple cider, it is pumpkin picking, it is drinking your pumpkin spice latte—all of the above.


Josie Duffy Rice: Basically, any stereotype of fall that you can imagine, that’s what we are.


Priyanka Aribindi: On today’s show, the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders resigned. Plus, we quiz each other on the deafeningly loud romance between Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox. It will be a doozy.


Josie Duffy Rice: Scared and excited. But first, some news from Congress: yesterday afternoon, House Democrats passed a short-term measure to extend the country’s debt limit through early December. Despite every Republican present voting no. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned lawmakers weeks ago that if they didn’t do anything, the nation would run out of cash by this coming Monday. Same. The bill next heads to the president’s desk for him to sign. So fiscal disaster averted for now. But we will see you guys again in December.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes, we have been here. We’ll still be here. Hopefully you join us then.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, this is Groundhog Day, but the debt limit.


Priyanka Aribindi: Exactly. But today we want to share this gripping new investigation about racial justice in the criminal justice system in Tennessee, and children who were systematically arrested and incarcerated for sometimes nothing at all. Josie, this is a wild story, and it starts a few years back. Can you tell us more about what happened?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it’s very wild, very devastating. So in 2016, police officers were sent to an elementary school in Rutherford County, Tennessee, to arrest children—children ranging from 8 to 12 years old because they were seen in a video of kids fighting. In total, officers arrested 11 Black children over this one video, pulling them out of classrooms, off the school bus, handcuffing them and locking them up. But the children they were there to arrest were not actually the children fighting in the video.


Priyanka Aribindi: OK, so why were these kids being arrested then?


Josie Duffy Rice: They were arrested for not breaking the fight up—which to be clear, Priyanka, is actually not a crime. These cops were in a school, arresting kids as young as 8-years old for something that is not actually illegal. For anyone, the experience of being incarcerated is difficult and traumatic. For children, the experience is exponentially more terrifying. In this county, children were going to jail over tiny infractions, if any infraction at all.


Priyanka Aribindi: That is horrific. But also, I’m just thinking back to my time in school. I certainly saw fights. I wasn’t involved in them. But like, you’re telling me you’re arresting people for that? That is just wild. But this incident was just one of many that were documented in a new report by ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio. And this wasn’t an isolated incident, right? Can you tell us more about what’s happening here?


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, so it wasn’t an isolated incident. This happened for more than a decade where officials in Rutherford County, Tennessee, would arrest kids en masse and place them in juvenile detention. The story focuses on a number of law enforcement and court officials that caused, facilitated, and encouraged locking up children in really overwhelming numbers. And it’s worth pointing out that most of these children were Black.


Priyanka Aribindi: So there is sort of a lead person behind this system. Can you tell us more about who she is and why she is doing this?


Josie Duffy Rice: Whew. Yeah. I mean, I would love to explain why she’s doing this. That part is not exactly clear, but I can tell you who she is. Her name is Donna Scott Davenport, and she’s the elected juvenile court judge in Rutherford County, Tennessee. She’s had this job for the past 21 years, and she is really the primary reason so many children have been arrested and locked up. So Priyanka, earlier today, I was able to talk with the ProPublica story’s lead author, Meribah Knight. She’s a senior reporter for Nashville Public Radio. And I began by asking her how she came across the story.


Meribah Knight: Obviously, I was stunned and horrified and wondered, what is behind this? Pretty quickly, a number of federal lawsuits were filed over those arrests, and then some of the same lawyers that took some of those lawsuits began to file other lawsuits. And so I kept tracking the lawsuits and talking to the lawyers, and it was a couple of years later where I realized this is a massive story. And what’s so fascinating about it to me is that it cracked the door open on this really secretive place called juvenile court. And so it was really kind of the breadcrumbs from all of those that I was picking up along the way and thought, this is a pretty exceptional story about a system, and about everybody who is participating in that system, but then also the person who’s at the top of it.


Josie Duffy Rice: So can you tell our audience a little bit more about how Judge Davenport chooses to handle juvenile cases, and how it differs from how a more middle-of-the-road judge might handle them?


Meribah Knight: Yeah. So the first part of that is that the role that she plays in the county is pretty exceptional. Rutherford County established the juvenile court in 2000. She was elected in 2000, and she has remained the juvenile judge since. So she has been the one and only juvenile court judge that the county has ever had. So she is the architect of the system. She oversees the courts and she also oversees the jail, meaning she appointed the head jailer and that jailer reports to her. So she has is pretty exceptional breath of power. The second part is that, as we outlined in the story, there are these two primary policies that resulted in that massive number happening. The first is in a memo to law enforcement in 2003, the judge said to them: it is so ordered that upon the arrest of any child, they must be taken to the detention facility. Now, in most places, you wouldn’t do that to a child. It’s traumatic. What you would do say, is issue a summons or a citation. Say: you are found to be truant, in here is a piece of paper, now you have to come to court. Her directions were: you are truant, we are arresting you, and we are taking you to the juvenile detention center. The other part of the mechanism and policy was that once they got to the detention center, there was something called the filter system. It’s kind of complicated, but here’s how I’ll explain it: in Tennessee, they’re very, very narrow limits on what is qualifying for a child to be in detention—they have to have fit certain parameters in order to detain them. That wasn’t the case in Rutherford County. In Rutherford County, the only notion that they had to think about when they were making the decision to detain a child was if that child was quote, “a true threat.” That was in their standard operating procedures. However, what a true threat is was never defined. So a child would be arrested, brought to the detention facility and then face this filter system screening. And if an officer decided that they thought this child was a true threat, whatever that meant, that they would be held. And so these two policies together created this massive dragnet for children.


Josie Duffy Rice: You just said something, you said in Tennessee, you’re actually, there are some parameters around when you’re supposed to arrest and lock up children. It seems like she just basically was ignoring those, right? And so generally, the story seems to be of an elected official who is behaving however she feels like it, regardless of what the law or regulations say. I was wondering how this made you think about the power of courts and the power of judges in general, and the oversight mechanisms for making sure that they are treating, not just children, but all people in accordance with the law, with respect—there don’t really seem to be many of those. Is that right?


Meribah Knight: Yeah. I mean, you really hit it there. Like this is her fiefdom. And I’ve talked to many lawyers that have practiced in her courtroom, and that is exactly how she operates. This is my courtroom, this is my county, I will tell you what to do. I mean, even when there have been federal judges that have intervened, she has balked and been like, not my county. And they have to say, No, this is a federal judge. You have to do that. We reviewed a lot of cases where she just kind of blatantly disregarded superior courts, appellate courts, and she really feels that she runs the show. Now, the concept of oversight is really important because we break that down in the story. Essentially, the folks who have been able to make the most change on a policy level in this county are the plaintiffs lawyers who have gone to federal court and have federal judges intervene and say, you have to stop this. But the other part of that are, you know, the mechanisms of oversight that should have been there from the beginning, like the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, for example, who are inspecting the facility twice a year. And we reviewed those inspection reports while the filter system was in writing in their SOP—they never once flagged it. The other aspect that is important to note is that juvenile court is sealed, right? Everything in there is secret, and that’s supposed to be to protect the children. But I think in this instance, what we really see is that it’s not protecting the children, it’s protecting the adults. These lawsuits that were filed were special, like I said, because they cracked the door open. The other mechanism of oversight is that the data associated with the courts is just abysmal, so that 48% number comes from 2014. That was a last year the state ever reported any data on juvenile court. So we have no idea what is happening in juvenile court across the state. No idea.


Josie Duffy Rice: What did your research and reporting, tell you about the kind of psychological damage that what Judge Davenport did can really have on children, particularly the Black children who were disproportionately affected by her brutality?


Meribah Knight: Yeah. So we start with this mass arrest of 11 kids. They all end up filing federal lawsuits, and thankfully there is some money for many of them earmarked for counseling. We also talked to a young man named Dylan Geertz, who was picked up at 15-years old and detained for four days. He had been diagnosed as bipolar. He didn’t get any of his medication while he was in the facility. And when he was released, Davenport put him on house arrest for a few months. He tried to commit suicide three times in the year after he was released. Another kid, Quinn Terrius we spoke with, had been put in solitary for so long, he talks to himself. He needs constant simulation. I talked to him and his mom, and in the middle of the interview, she says, you know, he’s struggling right now. I can see him, you know, he was kind of pacing and pulling out his hair. And he said, I talk to myself still because I did it for so long. So I mean, the ramifications are huge and wide ranging, but trauma is ever present.


Josie Duffy Rice: One interesting thing about this story, right, is that the immediate thought is if we didn’t know about this, there are surely other cases like this that we don’t know about. There is, again, so little oversight, so little community oversight, so little media response more generally on judges like this. And so Tennessee is far from being the only state with kind of these problematic and extremely carceral and brutal jail systems, especially those that are racially biased. Is your understanding that there are more places like this widespread through the country, and have you heard since you published this article more stories about this happening in other places—what has been kind of the response?


Meribah Knight: Well, the response has been pretty remarkable. Mainly, it’s been a flood of people from that county saying that they were, you know, in her courtroom or yes, they were detained for something minor. I mean, it’s been pretty overwhelming. So what I’ll say about whether this is something that happens all over the place: in Tennessee, I wish I knew. The data is woefully inadequate. There is nothing published that puts these courts into any context, like that 5% state average—we have no idea what that is now. All of these courts, and we have 98 of them in the state, are operating in total obscurity. And the only reason why we could figure out what was happening here was because there were so many lawsuits. And the thing that’s so remarkable about these lawsuits, too, is that a number of them were brought by the same three lawyers, two of whom Mark Downton and Wesley Clark were juvenile defense lawyers in her courtroom. So they had seen this. They didn’t quite have the chops yet to take it to federal court, but as soon as they did, they went to federal court. So what’s unique about it is that it’s pretty homegrown.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right.


Meribah Knight: Like, it not some big law firm that came in and sees kind of small town street lawyers who were cutting their teeth in her courtroom who said, What the heck is going on here!? No way! And kind of got the guts up to bite the hand that feeds them, because they were being appointed cases, and to kind of like, turn their back on the system and say, No, we’re going to burn it down.


Josie Duffy Rice: Priyanka, that’s my conversation with Meribah Knight, the lead author of this new investigation by ProPublica.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. What a wild story. I mean, I hope we get rid of this judge—not we—the people in Tennessee. But I don’t know if that’ll happen.


Josie Duffy Rice: I have to say, I mean, it’s a remarkable story. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It’s very devastating. But I think it’s something everybody should read. You know, I do this work professionally in criminal justice, and it was very shocking even to me. There’s so much more to the story that we didn’t actually get to get to, but I want everyone to read it. So we’ll have a link to it in our show notes. And that’s the latest for now.


It is Wednesday, WAD squad, and today we’re talking about a relationship that is desperately vying for a piece of our mental real estate, the most deranged part of our mental real estate. This is the relationship between Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox. In case you missed it, the rock star and Transformers actress got together last year, and they’ve been on a gruesome PDA tour ever since. They are pioneers in the field of open mouth kissing, with their Hot Topic style and their explosive horniness, they seem to be staring in our eyes and just daring us to make them stop grinding on each other in study hall. So Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly recently did an interview with British GQ, which starts out with them giving each other tattoos that say—and I am not joking—the darkest fairy tale.


Priyanka Aribindi: I can’t. I can’t really.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s, it’s so bad. It’s so bad. So Priyanka you have not actually read this story, correct?


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes. OK, so I resisted every impulse, every temptation to read this story because I knew we were talking about it today so we could play this game. So I’ve really put in a lot of hours of effort. I’m looking forward to what is to come.


Josie Duffy Rice: This is truly like the marshmallow test, but next level and you have passed with flying colors. So I am going to read you three quotes. Two of them are real, one is fake, and we’re going to see if you can spot the fake one. OK, so this is called “Two Machines and a Gun Kelly.”


Priyanka Aribindi: Oh my god.


Josie Duffy Rice: Are you ready?


Priyanka Aribindi: All right. I’m ready as I’ll will ever be.


Josie Duffy Rice: OK? Quote number one—I don’t even know if I can say these out loud, they’re so ridiculous. “Even our first kiss, she wouldn’t kiss me. We just put our lips right in front of each other and breathe each other’s breath and then she just left.” OK, so that’s quote number one.


Priyanka Aribindi: Got it. Got it.


Josie Duffy Rice: Quote number two: I just remember this tall, blond, ghostly creature, and I looked up and I was like, “You smell like weed.” He looked down at me and he was like, “I am weed.” So that’s quote number two. Quote number three: when I first made her dinner, she asked what was in it? And I said, my blood. Then she was like, is there enough for a seconds? So again, two of these quotes are real. One of them is fake. What do you think is fake?


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m calling bullshit on number three just because I don’t think Machine Gun Kelly cooks. That is my final answer. What was the answer here?


Josie Duffy Rice: The answer actually is number three. I love your logic here. The most sensible thing that has happened in these quotes is a human being cooking, and that was a thing where you were like, I actually—


Priyanka Aribindi: Yes! No, that one was so, it was like the most normal interaction. And I mean, yes, like there was obviously the twist, but it was way too normal for like—participating in.


Josie Duffy Rice: Totally, totally. I love it.


Priyanka Aribindi: Dead giveaway.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. Dead Giveaway. That was Two Machines and a Gun Kelly, and we will be back after some ads.


Priyanka Aribindi: I hope we play this game for many episodes to come. This is great.


Josie Duffy Rice: I honestly think they have material for years, so I don’t, I don’t worry about us running out, to be honest.


[ad break]


Priyanka Aribindi: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Josie Duffy Rice: Something that happened in Vegas has refused to stay in Vegas: Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned Monday night after the New York Times published emails he wrote that contained homophobic and misogynistic remarks. Gruden wrote the emails while working for ESPN as a color commentator. To cite some examples, his emails contained complaints about female referees and also images of nearly naked women. Many of Gruden’s emails were sent to Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington football team, who had been under an NFL investigation. And several NFL watchers are waiting for the details of Allen’s own inbox to come out. In response to Gruden’s departure, several NFL players past and present spoke out, like former linebacker Emmanuel Acho, who posted this video on Twitter.


[clip of Emmanuel Acho] No place in our society for language like that, for speech like that, for thoughts like that—particularly for people in positions of power. Not in sports, or in life.


Priyanka Aribindi: Release the emails. That is all I have to say. Never thought I’d be saying it, but yes, that, I think we need it in this case.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I got to say, if you’re going to send dumb emails, please, for the love of God, don’t send them from your work address.


Priyanka Aribindi: Right!?


Josie Duffy Rice: This is 101.


Priyanka Aribindi: No one is making you do this. Like you have a personal. Come on.


Josie Duffy Rice: Right. And it’s probably, AOL. Just go to AOL.com babe, and sign in and send your crazy emails from there.


Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, come on, buddy. This isn’t amateur hour any more.


Josie Duffy Rice: True.


Priyanka Aribindi: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott decided he hasn’t gotten enough bad press on this podcast, and he is on a one-man quest to fix that. Well, you know, he is off to a very good start.


Josie Duffy Rice: Godspeed, Greg.


Priyanka Aribindi: On Monday, he signed an executive order banning any entity in the state, including private businesses, from mandating the COVID vaccine for workers or customers. This follows President Biden’s request to the Department of Labor last week to require the companies nationwide with over 100 employees mandate COVID vaccines or implement weekly testing. Abbott isn’t the only Republican governor trying to defy the rules. The governor most likely to drive a lifted Jeep, Florida’s Ron DeSantis, said in a press conference yesterday that he might challenge the federal vaccine mandate by putting laws in place to shield workers from being fired if they don’t comply. He has already fined one county $3.5 million dollars for firing employees that wouldn’t get vaccinated. As the side that would prefer that Americans stay alive and healthy, the White House is understandably pissed about these governors’ repeated efforts to quote, “put politics ahead of public health.”


Josie Duffy Rice: Honestly, I don’t understand how they do their other parts of their job.


Priyanka Aribindi: Right!


Josie Duffy Rice: They spend so much time just passing laws against masks and vaccines. I just don’t get it.


Priyanka Aribindi: There are other things going on. I’m sure that people want you to deal with like, but you just want to, I don’t even know.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah, it’s crazy. Meanwhile, two airlines are messing with Texas and defying Abbott on vaccine mandates. So Texas-based airlines Southwest and American both said yesterday they would follow the federal government’s guidelines and require vaccines among their workforces. And other airlines news, Ryanair, which is basically the Spirit Airlines of Europe, is accused of unfairly blacklisting passengers. When Europe had strict COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions, the airline refused to hand out refunds to passengers who couldn’t fly. Some of those people got their money back anyway by pursuing chargebacks through their credit card companies. But now Ryanair is reportedly holding a grudge and is demanding that anyone who got a refund give it back, which for some amounts to over 850 U.S. dollars. If passengers don’t return their refunds, the company will continue to ban them from all future flights, forcing them to pay $500 per carry-on through a different budget European airline.


Priyanka Aribindi: That’s simply not how a refund works. I don’t know who told you that.


Josie Duffy Rice: It’s very petty. It’s like corporate pettiness, and I almost admire it. Except I feel bad for everybody who is never going to be able to fly Ryanair again.


Priyanka Aribindi: Last vaccine story of the day, we promise. All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving will not play in any games for the Brooklyn Nets until he is vaccinated, said that the team yesterday. Previously, Irving had been sitting out home games to comply with local vaccine mandates in New York, but the door had been open for him to play on the road, provided that he followed strict NBA rules for unvaccinated players. They basically confin them in their hotel rooms where they’re not playing. Why risk getting a shot that has been proven to be safe and effective when you can get sick off of mini fridge candy and watch Storage Wars until your eyes hurt? Guess that is what he had been thinking to himself. The door to play away games closed yesterday, with the Nets general manager saying that quote, “Our focus needs to be on those players that are going to be involved here and participating fully.” Setting out the full season could cost Irving $16 million. He still hasn’t spoken publicly about his vaccination status, but we can safely bet $16 million that it is negative.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I just want to say that if the Nets need an extra player and they want me to get another shot for $16 million, I am ready. I will suit up. I will be there tomorrow.


Priyanka Aribindi: Josie, I will miss you a lot, but I think you could do great things for the team. I am in full support.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know what? I’ll give you a million dollars for my troubles.


Priyanka Aribindi: Wow. Draft Josie! I want the jersey. And those are the headlines.


Josie Duffy Rice: One more thing before we go: this week on Keep It, Ira, Louis and guest host Tre’vell Anderson discuss Dave Chappelle’s special The Closer, and the highs and lows of Celebrity podcasts. Carrie Brownstein also joins Keep it this week to talk about her new film with St. Vincent, The Nowhere Inn. New episodes of Keep It drop every Wednesday. Listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts.


Priyanka Aribindi: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, add a few more inches of clearance to your lifted Jeep, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just episode summaries for Storage Wars like I am, What a day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Priyanka Aribindi: I’m Priyanka Aribindi.


[together] And let us live, Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly.


Josie Duffy Rice: Just let us live.


Priyanka Aribindi: I really can’t with them. The photos are one thing. You know what? It’s fine. Be a hot couple. Great for you. Like, what are you saying, though? Where are these words coming from?


Josie Duffy Rice: It really is hilarious. I was laughing out loud at every single quote.


Priyanka Aribindi: I really hope they speak like that in real life.


Josie Duffy Rice: Meet too!


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lance. Jazzi Marine is our associate producer. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and myself. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.