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ProPublica Local Reporting Project Wins John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Journalism

A Nashville Public Radio and ProPublica exposé of the juvenile justice system in Rutherford County, Tennessee, won the John Jay College/Harry Frank Guggenheim Award for Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting. The multimedia report by Nashville Public Radio reporter Meribah Knight and ProPublica reporter Ken Armstrong was recognized in the “single story” category of the prize, which is administered by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College.

The story, which is a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, sprang from a 2016 incident in which 11 children were arrested in a Tennessee county for allegedly watching other kids scuffle and not stepping in to stop the fighting. When Knight and Armstrong looked into it, they discovered that the children were arrested for a crime that does not exist. For nine years, Rutherford County used an illegal “filter system,” crafted by the director of its juvenile detention center, that allowed the facility to jail kids deemed a “true threat” — a vague standard that’s not defined anywhere in the center’s manual.

The reporters also discovered that in Rutherford County, the norm, by order of Judge Donna Scott Davenport, 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 to the statewide average of 5%. In addition, county commissioners made light of having children in cells, likening the jail to a hotel while saying it would be “cool” if the juvenile detention center could be a “profit center.”

Within days of the 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 Davenport taught a criminal justice class, announced that the judge “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 will step down in 2022 rather than run for reelection.

See a list of all the winners.

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