In Rutherford County, Tennessee, kids as young as 7 years old were getting thrown in jail for incredibly minor offenses—stealing a football or pulling someone’s hair. Some kids were even jailed for acts that weren’t crimes at all, such as failing to stop an after-school fight. Worse still, the kids were frequently put in solitary confinement, even though that’s explicitly prohibited for children under Tennessee law.
Not only were these jailings illegal, but pretty much everyone working in the Rutherford County Juvenile Court knew it—including the county’s sole juvenile court judge, Donna Scott Davenport.
In The Kids of Rutherford County, a four-part podcast series from Serial Productions and The New York Times, Meribah Knight examines how so many kids could be unlawfully detained and why it took so long to stop the practice.
The podcast follows two public defenders, Wes Clark and Mark Downton, who eventually launched a successful lawsuit against the county after years of maddening attempts to convince Davenport that her practices were illegal.
Thanks to Clark and Downton’s suit, Rutherford County is no longer illegally detaining its children on minor offenses and Davenport is no longer on the bench. But the pair didn’t end up with an unalloyed victory. The $11 million payout that Clark and Downton won in court? Only 23 percent of the eligible recipients could be contacted to make claims, so just $2.2 million was distributed to the jailed kids.
The Kids of Rutherford County showcases just how difficult it is to force broken government systems to change, and how difficult it is to make the victims of injustice whole.