TN parole board failings go back years

10:46 AM, Oct 14, 2012   |    comments
Adrian Henry has a long history of parole violations.
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Written by
Brian Haas

The Tennessean
While some parole officials were "supervising" dead offenders, violent sex offender Adrian Henry was flunking drug tests, missing parole officer visits and skipping out on payments to the state for his supervision with few consequences.

Then on Aug. 12, 2010, he beat and strangled Saret Vit, a 22-year-old Middle Tennessee State University graduate he briefly dated. He set fire to her corpse on the side of Brick Church Lane in North Nashville.

Today Henry, 28, is serving 40 years in prison for her murder. But her relatives are left wondering how the state's parole system, tasked with keeping citizens safe from dangerous felons such as Henry, had fallen so far as to be supervising felons who had been dead for up to 19 years.

"That's just unbelievable,'' said Sarong Vit, 30, Saret Vit's sister. "What is wrong with Tennessee and this department? We're not really meeting our principles of justice."

State Rep. Barrett Rich, R-Somerville, who chairs a legislative committee that oversees parole and probation issues, agrees. He has tried unsuccessfully in the past to abolish parole in Tennessee and said the current state of supervision proves his point.

"I don't think it's currently doing what it's supposed to be doing, what it's designed to do," Rich said. "I think it's a failed experiment."

An audit released this month accused the Tennessee Board of Parole of not only keeping dead felons under active supervision, but of also falling far short of state guidelines on supervising live felons and failing to adequately punish people who rack up numerous violations.

But while this year's audit raises serious questions about the state's ability to supervise felons, it shouldn't be a surprise: Audits in 2001 and 2006 uncovered identical problems in which felons weren't being subjected to face-to-face visits, home visits and arrest checks they were supposed to undergo.

House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, said Tennessee taxpayers expect better from the state.

"Certainly this is not something that we can tolerate, and it's not something the taxpayers should tolerate," Harwell said Friday. "We will expect changes to be made."

Caseloads blamed

Rich and other legislators at a recent subcommittee hearing expressed outrage that dead felons were being supervised and that two parole officers who falsified reports had not been arrested.

After the hearing, Tennessee Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield, who took over the state's parole and probation services this year, ordered an investigation into the audit's findings. And Gary Tullock, who was in charge of the state's parole and probation officers, resigned.

The Board of Parole blamed the continued supervision failures on increasing caseloads.

"From a historical perspective, the board continued to move forward in addressing supervisory issues in its audits," said Melissa McDonald, spokeswoman for the Board of Parole. "The board has consistently experienced increases in caseloads as the population served continues to grow.''

She said the number of felons under supervision has increased by 6.1 percent annually for the past 10 years.

It's a familiar refrain. In 2001, after an audit showed the agency wasn't fulfilling its supervision duties, it responded by complaining that caseloads had become untenable at 96 felons per parole officer. In 2006, it complained when they reached 100. In 2012, caseloads had grown to 113 for some parole officers.

Rep. Mike Kernell, D-Memphis, said the state legislature deserves some of the blame for not funding more parole officers to address caseloads in the past.

"The parole people kept saying, 'We're getting too high of a ratio, too high of a ratio, too high of a ratio,' and never got the funding that they've needed," he said. "The legislature has to be upset with itself, too."

Rich laid some of the blame at the feet of Board of Parole Chairman Charles Traughber, who has held the position since 1988 with on-and-off stints at the agency going back to 1972.

"I don't think that Mr. Traughber specifically is the cause, but I believe that, in and of itself, I would be embarrassed to know that under my watch that this has happened," he said.

Traughber responded only by saying, "I have the utmost respect for Representative Rich."

Supervising dead

What has drawn much of the legislators' ire this time around is auditors' discovery that at least 82 felons were dead but still being actively supervised. They had been dead from as little as a few months to 19 years in one case. The audit also found that at least two parole officers had falsified records, showing that the dead felons were in a nursing home or bedridden after they had already died.

Rich has questioned the agency about why those two parole officers weren't arrested for falsifying state records. Tullock, who has since resigned, responded that he didn't have a good answer. The two officers are no longer working for the state.

The state would not release their names.

"The investigation is ongoing, so we are unable to release any further information at this time," said Dorinda Carter, spokeswoman for the Department of Correction.

Two recent cases illustrate missteps

Records show there have been multiple missteps by the state during the past few years.

Convicted sex offender Robert Simmons was on parole when he ended up living with two women and four children in a Nashville hotel. On May 17, 2011, police say, he was left to baby-sit 6-month-old Heaven Hamilton.

The baby's mother returned home to find her daughter not breathing. She died at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Police said Simmons admitted to shaking the child. He is awaiting trial on child abuse and murder charges.

According to state records, Simmons failed to get sex offender treatment and reported only "sporadically" to his probation officers. Parole officers never checked on where he lived because they mistakenly thought he was homeless.

In April 2011, police learned sex offender and convicted murderer Floyd Leroy Craig, 77, was living at a Nashville home that also operated a day care in the house.

State records show a history of repeat problems while Craig was under supervision. He skipped required sex offender treatment and polygraphs. In addition, Craig had a revolving door of parole officers - 13 officers in just a three-year period, six of whom supervised him for less than a month.

Craig was convicted on a charge of violating sex offender residential restrictions and served 90 days in jail.

The state's struggles in managing probation and parole predate even the 2001 audit.

In 1998, the Tennessee legislature, citing the potential for "more efficient and cost effective performance," removed parole and probation duties from the Tennessee Department of Correction and created the Board of Probation and Parole as an independent agency.

Gov. Bill Haslam last year decided to put supervision of felons back under the Department of Correction for "a more seamless process" in keeping tabs on offenders. Haslam's office declined to address the details of the latest audit findings.

"The governor has been in touch with Commissioner Schofield about the audit and the findings and will hear the results of that investigation at the appropriate time,'' said Dave Smith, spokesman for Haslam.

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