Rutherford County is going to have to stop its policy of arresting and detaining children accused of minor crimes, at least for the time being. A federal judge has granted a preliminary injunction in favor of a lawsuit that claims the county has spent years unlawfully detaining juveniles.
In a written ruling, U.S. District Judge Waverly Crenshaw said Rutherford County is depriving juveniles of their rights. He ordered that the county bring in an outside party to determine whether minors should be detained until a court appearance.
Kyle Mothershead is one of the lawyers representing the families in the case. He says that for more than a decade, Rutherford County has been "casting a very wide net," when it comes to arresting and detaining juveniles.
"[For] minor, misdemeanor offenses, kids have been put in jail for days or even sometimes longer. When the law says they should not be put in jail for it at all," Mothershead says.
An annual report shows Rutherford County’s juvenile detention rate is nearly 10 times higher than the statewide average.
The roots of this aggressive policy can be traced back to a 2003 memo issued by juvenile court judge Donna Davenport. That memo has been interpreted to mean that after a summons is issued, law enforcement must always make a physical arrest and take that child to the detention center. In turn, the suit alleges that the county has created its own rogue system for incarcerating minors — one that has a much lower threshold than what’s outlined by state law.
"Tennessee law is extremely protective of children when it comes to putting them in jail," Mothershead says. "Generally speaking, kids don’t belong in jail."
However, in Rutherford County, Mothershead says it’s possible that thousands of kids have been illegally detained. Some of the plaintiffs in this case include Hobgood Elementary students who were arrested at school last year for an off-campus bullying incident.
An attorney for Rutherford County said it will comply with the judge’s order to halt the county’s current policy of detaining juveniles for misdemeanors and other minor infractions.