- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

May 31

Knoxville (Tennessee) News Sentinel on public access to investigation records in Vanderbilt rape case:

On Thursday, the State Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of The Tennessean v. Metro Nashville, which involves access to records in the rape investigation of four Vanderbilt University football players.

The News Sentinel is part of the media coalition that joined the Nashville newspaper in bringing the lawsuit. What began as a standard request under the state’s Public Records Act has grown into a dispute that could fundamentally shape the news media’s ability to function as a public watchdog in the state.

The origin of the case was the June 23, 2013, gang rape of an unconscious woman in a Vanderbilt dorm room. Two former football players eventually were convicted of rape and battery. Two others are awaiting trial.

In making its records request, the Tennessean was not concerned so much about the crime as it was about the investigation. Did authorities work diligently to determine what had happened, or was there any attempt to cover up the incident because the suspects were football players?

Court records have shown that the football coach at the time, James Franklin, contacted the victim by cellphone just four days after the rape. Why? Did it have anything to do with his earlier meeting with the woman during which she says he asked her to gather a group of “pretty girls” to help with football recruiting?

Authorities have seized thousands of text messages in connection with the case, including texts between coaches and players after the rape. The newspaper wants to examine those records and others to determine if the university contributed in any way to an environment that condoned sexual exploitation and abuse.

The media believe the records are not exempt from the Public Records Act. The Supreme Court ruled years ago that law enforcement agencies could withhold the sort of internal documents that prosecutors are allowed to keep from defense attorneys under the rules of discovery. But in this case the records already had been turned over to the defense.

Still, Metro Nashville argued that the records could be kept secret under this “Rule 16” exemption, and it was joined by the Davidson County district attorney and the state attorney general. The rape victim also joined the case, arguing that the information should be exempt from disclosure under victims’ rights law.

The coalition won a partial victory in trial court, where the chancellor found there was “no broad law enforcement privilege” to withhold records. But in a split decision, the Court of Appeals ruled the opposite way, finding that police agencies can keep secret anything they considered relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Now the ball is in the Supreme Court, and the stakes are high for the future of government transparency in Tennessee.

Citizen visibility into the workings of police agencies has become a bigger issue nationally since this case began, and with the push toward body cameras, the topic is sure to grow in importance.

The victim’s rights argument is a wild card that could create a broad new exemption to the Public Records Act. That’s ironic, because the media have long taken care to guard the identities of rape victims, the information the Tennessean is seeking would tend to prevent campus rapes in the future, and the coalition explicitly has stated it doesn’t want to see photos and video that intrude on the victim’s privacy.

It’s ironic, too, that Franklin is now coaching at Penn State, a university that was devastated because a sexual abuse scandal was covered up by officials.

Will the media, acting as citizens of Tennessee, continue to have a significant role as watchdogs of law enforcement agencies, or will the government, in the interest of privacy and efficiency, be left largely to police itself?

Five justices soon will decide.




June 3

The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tennessee, on giving ex-inmate second chance:

In Tennessee, 44-45 percent of inmates released from prison are reincarcerated within three years.

That is a staggering number and a staggering cost to taxpayers in terms of public safety and money. The cost of housing an inmate in a state prison is more than $27,000 a year.

Some folks would say that is money well spent to get a criminal off the street.

It is not money well spent if 44-45 percent those inmates end up back behind bars.

That is why the new Memphis/Shelby County Office of Reentry, which is opened Monday, is an important weapon in reducing the recidivism rate.

The center, which has a staff of 14, will provide an all-inclusive location for former inmates to rebuild their lives and become contributing members of society.

Criminal justice and prison officials across the county over the last decade have zeroed in on reducing the recidivism rate, which is more than 60 percent nationally, as a significant weapon to reduce crime.

Most people sent to prison eventually get out. Tennessee officials say 97 percent of prisoners in state custody will be released.

Many enter prison with little education and few job skills. Too many re-enter society with the same shortcomings. Add the fact that a felony conviction can be a major roadblock in gaining a good-paying job and you have a perfect recipe for someone to return to crime and return to prison.

Memphis/Shelby County Office of Reentry’s goal is to provide services for prisoners who have paid their debt to society and want a decent shot at showing the community they can be productive citizens.

Services will include help with employment, education substance abuse, family reunification, transportation and housing. Getting inmates ready to re-enter society actually starts when an inmate enters prison.

There are some prisoners who will never buy into this concept, but a good many just want to do their time and get on with their lives.

They have used their incarceration to improve themselves. When they are released, they just want a decent second chance. The re-entry program will help give them that chance.




June 1

Paris (Tennessee) Post-Intelligencer on Tennessee Promise education program:

Tennessee students know a good deal when they see one.

More than 20,000 of them have jumped at the chance for post-high school education through the state’s all-new Tennessee Promise program.

That program, now in its first year, allows high school graduates to attend a state community college or technical college tuition-free.

Statistics released by the state Friday were gleaned from the students’ applications for federal financial aid. They show, for instance, that some 31,500 applicants sought federal aid to attend a four-year university, keeping Tennessee Promise assistance as a backup plan.

How many actually wind up using Tennessee Promise funds won’t be known until students actually begin their higher education this fall. One official predicted the number will be about 18,000.

Whatever the final numbers turn out to be, the program is bound to boost the enrollment at the state’s institutions of post-high school education, and that’s the whole point. The aid amounts to an investment in our common future.



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