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Scathing report on 2016 juvenile arrests questions what’s changed in Rutherford County

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Posted at 7:06 PM, Oct 14, 2021

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WTVF) — A scathing new report on the Rutherford County juvenile justice system questions how much has changed since 2016.

That’s when as many as 10 kids were arrested and charged for watching a fight off school grounds.

Now five years later, it's always the same question for District Attorney Jennings Jones: Why didn’t his office step in sooner to stop police before any children were arrested?

"By statute, we’re not involved in that part of the process," Jones said.

Tennessee State Code limits the involvement of the DA’s office until after the arrest. Police are the ones who investigate charges and later present them to the magistrate. That’s when the magistrate decides as to whether or not they feel there’s probable cause for issuing a warrant.

Once an arrest is made and a court date is issued, that’s when Jones becomes involved. By then some argue the damage has already been done. Police arrested four children and placed two in handcuffs outside Hobgood Elementary. In total, 10 children were charged for watching the fight that was captured on video just days earlier.

None of the boys seen fighting in the blurry video were arrested, but instead, it was those who in some cases tried to stop the fight, who was arrested.

There was never any doubt for Jennings that the charge of “criminally responsibility” did not apply to these children. Some have argued the charge doesn’t even exist and is more a basis for which someone can be accused of a crime.

"When it’s kids doing stuff that kids do, the primary objective is to get them on the right path," he said.

In Rutherford County, oftentimes it’s meant children end up in the juvenile justice system.

The now condemned "filter system" meant jailers determined who would be held based on their perceived threat to others.

A recent article from ProPublica showed how around this time, 48% of children were detained. Compared to the 5% average statewide.

"What if anything needs to change in order for this to never happen again?" NewsChannel 5 asked.

"It would take significant resources, but if those resources were provided then we would be able to do pre-warrant reviews," Jones said.

For the DA’s office to interject sooner, Jones says this change requires the legislature. A change of this magnitude would mean the need for at least six more attorneys in his office to review all cases before an arrest.

In the meantime, Murfreesboro Police sent us the following statement: "It’s important to note this incident occurred in 2016. Nearly five and half years ago. The department has put this behind us and is working daily to bridge the gap between the community and the police department.

News is supposed to be new, and there is no new information. This was simply a rehash of the 2016 incident. In 2016, lessons were learned, several employees were disciplined and policies were changed. The department was transparent in releasing that information to the public.

Our current police chief and police officers are committed to honesty, courage, service, and integrity. We strive to help create a better quality of life for all residents of our growing city."

Of the eight officers involved with charging these children in 2016, five were disciplined. Only five remain on the job.

The after-action report which was filed in 2016 outlined corrective actions including improving communications and changing the way young people are handled in such situations.

Since the incident, Murfreesboro Police say officers can now informally interact with parents of juvenile offenders. Police will also no longer be able to serve juvenile warrants unless there is a court order.

"The police department has done what they can to prevent this from happening in the future," Jones said.

Judge Donna Scott Davenport also remains in her position as the juvenile court judge after all these years. The article with ProPublica criticized her years of handling juvenile cases by relying on detaining children as the most effective solution.

We reached out to Davenport who told us she can’t say much with pending litigation in the way.

While Davenport remains, the judicial commission made some changes of their own by hiring an attorney to better supervise arrest warrants.

With an $11 million class-action lawsuit settlement closing in on its October 29 deadline, attorneys asked those children unfairly detained to come forward.

Attorneys estimate that the county’s juvenile detention center improperly locked up kids about 1,500 times. So far they say only 200 claims have been filed for the class action lawsuit.

It may be years after the fact, but some hope it’s a sign that change is possible.

Jones says his office will remain diligent in prosecuting serious crimes by young people while continuing to use discretion in how to rehabilitate those committing less serious offenses.

Rutherford County Bill Ketron says while they can’t say much about pending litigation, "I share our community’s concerns over a news story that was recently released involving Rutherford County’s juvenile justice system. Changes to the system were put in place in 2017 to ensure that the county is strictly following required federal and state laws regarding arresting and detaining juveniles."

For more information on how to file a claim for the class action lawsuit, click here.