‘A step forward for Tennessee’: Lawmakers consider reforms as judge, who illegally jailed kids, leaves office

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NASHVILLE — The lawmakers seeking to remove a judge who illegally jailed children for crimes that do not exist say her impending retirement is a positive development for Rutherford County, but more must be done to reform the system to prevent similar situations in the future.

On Monday, Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, and Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, filed legislation that would authorize the Tennessee General Assembly to remove Donna Scott Davenport from the office of Juvenile Court Judge of Rutherford County. The next day, Davenport released a statement saying she planned to retire, reversing a previously announced decision to seek reelection.

“It should have never come to a point where the legislature had to consider the drastic measure of removing a sitting judge, but we are nonetheless taking a step forward for Tennessee,” said Sen. Campbell. “The illegal and irresponsible actions of this judge have scarred hundreds of children and cost Rutherford County taxpayers millions of dollars.”

The ouster resolution came just a month after a federal judge approved a settlement of about $6 million to the families of hundreds of young people who were illegally arrested and jailed by the Rutherford County juvenile justice system over a decade.

In the fallout of this news, Rep. Johnson says more must be done to reform the systems that allowed Davenport’s illegal actions to continue for years unchecked.

“This news is long overdue for the families and children who have been harmed by Davenport,” Rep. Johnson said. “Unfortunately, the safeguards meant to protect the rights of Tennesseans against extreme judicial misconduct are not working. So as we look forward, our goal as lawmakers should be to improve oversight and make sure this never happens again.”

Rep. Vincent Dixie, D-Nashville, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said the removal resolution should remain viable as long as investigations involving Judge Davenport are ongoing or until she leaves office. In October, Gov. Bill Lee’s office said the Board of Judicial Conduct should review Davenport’s record.

“The news of Davenport’s retirement is not an excuse to end an investigation into her misconduct,” said Rep. Dixie. “The Board must see this through to ensure justice is done for the kids who were illegally jailed by this judge and so investigators can improve their process for uncovering improper behavior.”

According to reports from ProPublica and WPLN, Judge Davenport has jailed Black children at a disproportionately high rate compared to the rest of the state and the racial disparity has gotten worse over time.

Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, says she hopes this upcoming change will lead to a reduction in the number of children being jailed in Rutherford County and lower racial disparities.

“It’s difficult to imagine any circumstance that would require a six-year-old child to be put in handcuffs and hauled off to jail, but situations like that happened with disturbing regularity under this judge,” said Sen. Gilmore. “I hope Rutherford County is soon able to turn a page from a dark time to a brighter future for kids who unfortunately find themselves involved with the justice system.”

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said Davenport’s retirement creates an opportunity to restore trust between the courts and public.

“Rutherford County has the opportunity to restore some broken trust between its citizens and the juvenile justice system,” Rep. Clemmons said. “No matter who you are or where you live, our courts should be applying the law fairly and uniformly.”

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Tennessee Senate Democrats

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Fighting for everyday people in the Tennessee General Assembly

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