The News Leaders Association announced this week that Local Reporting Network partner Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN News and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong won the Dori J. Maynard Justice Award for their detailed account of the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The award recognizes reporting on social justice issues.
Knight and Armstrong’s deep-dive investigation exposed the unsettling culture, spanning decades, in which children in Rutherford County were illegally arrested and jailed, all under the watch of a judge who was locking up kids at the highest rate in the state. In Rutherford County, the juvenile justice system jailed kids in 48% of the cases referred to juvenile court, while the statewide average was just 5%. ProPublica deputy data editor Hannah Fresques and research reporter Alex Mierjeski also contributed to the investigation.
The project began with a 2016 incident in which 11 children were arrested in the county for allegedly watching other kids scuffle and not stepping in to stop the fight. When Knight and Armstrong looked into it, they discovered that the children had been arrested for a crime that does not exist. The newsrooms obtained personnel files, state inspection reports, emails, depositions and other records, and the journalists gathered reports from all 98 juvenile courts in the state over five years to show that Rutherford County was an outlier. Knight and Armstrong also interviewed children (most now adults) about their experiences with the county’s juvenile justice system to bring home the devastating personal consequences of the county’s actions.
A follow-up investigation, co-reported with Fresques, showed that the county was jailing a disproportionately high percentage of Black children.
Within days of the first story’s publication, there was an outcry from community leaders and Tennessee lawmakers. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called for a federal civil rights investigation. Middle Tennessee State University, where the judge who oversees the system, Donna Scott Davenport, taught a criminal justice class, announced that she “is no longer affiliated with the University.” Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s office called on judicial authorities to conduct a review of Davenport, and 11 members of Congress sent a letter asking the Department of Justice to open an investigation into Rutherford’s juvenile justice system. Subsequently, Davenport announced that she would step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.
“This is truly impactful reporting of a civil rights issue that was being ignored,” an awards judge said. “Collaboration between local public radio station WPLN News and investigative national media ProPublica made the investigation powerful and impactful. They took an individual situation to a systemic level in an interesting and fresh way.”
See a list of all the News Leaders Association Award winners and finalists.