The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced this week that Local Reporting Network partner Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio (WPLN) and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong are the winners of the November Sidney Award for their detailed account about the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee. The monthly honor recognizes outstanding investigative journalism that fosters social and economic justice.
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 children up 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 — the statewide average was just 5%.
In April 2016, police officers arrested four Black girls at an elementary school in Murfreesboro. Two of the girls, the youngest just 8 years old, were handcuffed. All four, along with seven other kids arrested in the days after, were accused of watching some young boys fight and not stepping in to stop it.
Knight and Armstrong reconstructed the 2016 case by collecting a stunning trove of details from federal lawsuits and through the use of public records laws. They obtained more than 30 hours of audiotaped interviews from an internal police investigation, which allowed Knight and Armstrong to learn not only what police, school officials and prosecutors did, but also what they were thinking. The reporting team watched 12 years’ worth of public safety committee meetings in which the director of the juvenile detention center often spoke, and they listened to more than 60 hours of the Rutherford County judge on her local radio show. 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.
Knight and Armstrong found that in the 2016 case, 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 system overseen by a judge who failed the bar exam four times and a jailer who adopted a written policy for detaining kids that violated Tennessee law but escaped the notice of state inspectors year after year.
In 2017, a federal court found that Rutherford County was illegally jailing kids, and this year, the county agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit for up to $11 million. But the juvenile court judge is still on the bench, the jail’s director still holds her position, and the county’s juvenile justice system continues to grow. Meanwhile, the holes in government oversight that allowed Rutherford County to escape accountability for so long have yet to be closed.
The investigation gained a huge national readership (a Twitter thread alone was retweeted more than 90,000 times) and spurred immediate demands for reform. Eleven members of Congress wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to open a civil rights investigation. Tennessee’s governor called for a review of Rutherford County’s juvenile court judge. Middle Tennessee State University cut ties with the judge, who had worked for years as an adjunct instructor and been its commencement speaker in 2015.
While the judge in charge of the county’s juvenile justice system is up for reelection next year and has said that she plans to run again, one state lawmaker vowed “to make sure this never happens again.” Other colleagues in the Tennessee legislature described the situation in Rutherford County as a “nightmare” and “unchecked barbarism.”
“The depth and rigor of this investigation is outstanding,” Sidney Hillman Foundation judge Lindsay Beyerstein said. “The reporters and their respective media outlets went above and beyond.”