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Tennessee County Disproportionately Jails Black Children, and It’s Not Getting Better

by Jacob Barrett

Tennessee’s Rutherford County hasbeenunderscrutinyafteritwaswidelycriticizedforitsdysfunctional juvenilejusticesystem.TheCountyhasbeenincarceratingBlackchildrenatadisproportionatelyhighrate, accordingtodataobtainedbyProPublicaandNashvillePublicRadio(“NPR”).Themostrecentdatarevealthat theCounty’sincarcerationofBlackyouthisanextremedeparturefromnationaltrendsandtheCounty’sracial disparityisgettingworse,notbetter.

ProPublica and NPR documented how Rutherford County charged 11 Black children for a crime that did not exist. Four of the children were confined in the County’s juvenile jail.

Followingthepublicationofthestorybythetwonewsorganizations,theyreceivedadditionalreportsfromthe TennesseeCommissiononChildrenandYouththatexposedwhiletheCountywaslockingupsomanykids illegally,itwasalsoincarceratingadisproportionately  highpercentageofBlackchildren.

RutherfordCountybooked childrenintoitsjuvenilejailatleast6,350timesbetweenJuly2010andJune2021, accordingtotheyouthcommissionsmonitoringreports.Thirty-eightpercentofthosewereBlackchildren.That percentageistroublinginlightofthefactBlackchildrenonlymakeup onlyabout16%ofchildreninthe County.

RutherfordCounty’sracial populationdisparityiscomparabletothegapfortheU.S.asawhole.TheSentencingProject publishedafactsheet thatshowedin2019eventhoughBlackchildrenmakeuponly15%ofthenation’s youth,41%ofthechildrenincarceratednationallywereBlack.

The commission’s reports also expose the County as an outlier compared to what’s been happening in recent years regarding racial disparities in juvenile justice in general. While in most of the rest of the country the racial disparity has been decreasing, Rutherford County has been going in the opposite direction.

SandraSimkins,alawprofessoratRutgersUniversity andnationalexperton juvenilejustice,saidthatwhilesomestateshavetakenstepstoreduceracialdisparities,Tennesseehas“blockedeveryavenuetoreform.”

“Ithink Tennesseetoleratesbadactors,”Simkinssaid.“ItisagreatertolerancethanwhatIhaveeverseen.I havebeenacrossthecountry.I’veseenalotofbadpockets.”

Thatisparticularlyevidentinthefact thatafterProPublicaandNPRexposedRutherfordCounty’sdysfunctional juvenilejustice  systemandstatelawmakerscalledthesystema“nightmare”and“uncheckedbarbarism”nota singleeffortwasmadeforlegislationthatcouldreversethestate’strendof dysfunction.

There may be some light at the end of the tunnel in RutherfordCounty.JudgeDonnaScottDavenportwhowasa guidingforcein theillegalincarcerationofyouthinRutherfordCountyforyearsmaybeleavingoffice.

Davenporthasoverseenthejuvenilejustice systemafterwinningelectionin2000.Sheisupforreelectionin 2022.Forthefirsttimein  20years,shewillbefacingachallengerifsherunsagain.

TotopoffRutherfordCounty’sabysmalrecordof juvenile injustice,itrecentlyagreedtosettleaclass-actionlawsuitallegingthatithadillegallyarrested andjailedchildrenforyearsfornearly$6million,withhundredsof childrenreceivingpayouts. 

 

Source:ProPublica.com,NashvillePublicRadio

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