The Texas Observer announced last week that Local Reporting Network partner Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio’s WPLN News and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong won the 2022 Molly Ivins National Journalism Prize for Investigative Journalism for their deeply reported look into the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee. Presented by The Texas Observer and The Texas Democracy Foundation, the MOLLY National Journalism Prize recognizes superior journalism in the memory of journalist Molly Ivins.
Knight and Armstrong’s deep-dive investigation exposed a system, lasting 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.
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 oversaw 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.
ProPublica’s Bernice Yeung, Michael Grabell, Irena Hwang, Mollie Simon, Andrea Suozzo, Ash Ngu and Maryam Jameel also received an honorable mention for “Unchecked: America’s Broken Food Safety System." See a list of all the MOLLY Award winners here.