Reporting by Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN News and ProPublica on the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, won the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting. The investigation by Nashville Public Radio reporter Meribah Knight and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong exposed the unsettling culture that allowed children to be illegally arrested and jailed, all under the watch of a judge whose system was locking children up at the highest rate in the state. ProPublica deputy data editor Hannah Fresques and research reporter Alex Mierjeski also contributed to the investigation.
A project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, the series began with a 2016 incident that Knight wanted to know more about. Police officers had arrested four Black girls at an elementary school in Murfreesboro, a city in Rutherford County. Officers handcuffed two of the girls, the younger just 8 years old. All four, along with seven other kids arrested in the days after, were accused of watching some young boys scuffle and not stepping in to stop it.
More than 50 Freedom of Information Act requests later, Knight and Armstrong were able to see well beyond the story’s outlines, to the systemic issues that allowed those arrests — and subsequent jailings — to happen. They found that the children were arrested for a crime that does not exist, in an investigation led by a police officer who had been disciplined 37 times, on charges approved by judicial commissioners without law degrees, in a county where the written policy for detaining kids violated Tennessee law but escaped the notice of state inspectors year after year.
The reporters also discovered that in Rutherford County, the norm was to arrest kids rather than issue a citation with a court date. The county’s juvenile justice system jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court, compared with the statewide average of 5%. Many children were held there in solitary confinement, in a practice a federal judge called inhumane.
A subsequent story, co-reported with Fresques, showed that the county was jailing a disproportionately high percentage of Black children.
Donna Scott Davenport, the juvenile court judge in Rutherford County largely responsible for these outcomes, likes to say that kids must face consequences. But her dictum rarely applied to the adults in charge. In 2017, a federal court found that the county was illegally jailing kids, and late last year the county settled a class-action lawsuit on behalf of jailed children for about $6 million. But Davenport was still on the bench, the jail’s director still held her position and the county’s juvenile justice system continued to grow.
The investigation spurred immediate demands for reform. Eleven members of Congress wrote to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling for the Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. Tennessee’s governor called for a review of Davenport. Middle Tennessee State University cut ties with Davenport, who had worked there for years as an adjunct instructor. State legislators introduced a bill to remove Davenport, citing an “appalling abuse of power.” An hour after ProPublica wrote about that bill, the judge announced she would retire this year rather than run for reelection.
“Knight’s dogged determination to discover the reasons behind the arrests of four elementary school children led to a deep dive into a system often hidden to the world,” said Chuck Plunkett, the lead judge and University of Colorado Boulder’s CU News Corps director. “Knight’s instincts and drive are reminiscent of our contest's namesake.”
The Al Nakkula Award honors the late Al Nakkula, a 46-year veteran of the Rocky Mountain News. Learn more about the Al Nakkula Award.