Supervision lacking for dangerous parolees

Supervision lacking for dangerous parolees

July 4th, 2011 by The Tennessean in News

A month after a violent sex offender was found living in a Whites Creek, Tenn., home where someone operated a day care, another offender had moved into Nashville's Hallmark Inn and was left alone to baby-sit a 6-month-old girl.

Heaven Hamilton was rushed to the hospital that day with no pulse, a bloody nose and a possible skull fracture. She died the next day.

Both sex offenders were under the supervision of the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole, an agency in which officers have faced years of crushing caseloads, a revolving door of employees and an increasing inability to supervise properly some of the state's most dangerous criminals, records show.

Even the agency's leadership acknowledges that inadequate resources may have compromised its ability to oversee some of the state's most dangerous sex offenders.

Adding to their woes is a new program this year that will allow roughly 2,000 prison inmates to be released early over the next 12 months.

"Unlike some agencies that cause a great inconvenience to people if they're not doing their job adequately, this is a public safety issue," said state Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams. "That's one of the paramount responsibilities of government, to keep people safe. And I'm not so sure we're doing it based on what I'm hearing."

Records show:

• At least two offenders under supervision have been charged with murder in Davidson County in the past year.

• Probation officers have warned of inadequate staffing and inexperienced supervision of sex offenders since at least 2008.

• The agency rarely has met its own supervision standards and regularly has failed to meet its goals to reduce staff turnover and the rate at which offenders break the rules.

• In spite of a larger pool of officers, the agency's hiring has not kept pace with the increase in offenders it supervises.

• Performance audits since 2001 have criticized the agency for poor supervision of offenders due in part to high turnover and caseloads - caseloads that are higher in 2011 than a decade ago.

The agency said that it is doing its best to keep Tennesseans safe.

"I think we do a good job of it here," said Gary Tullock, who is director of field services and supervises all the state's probation and parole officers. "If a case goes bad, there probably was no level of adequate supervision. There's some offenders that [are] just going to reoffend."

But Tullock acknowledged the current caseload means the ability to supervise offenders is less than it was in 2000. That year, a consultant told the agency that "chronic understaffing" made proper supervision nearly impossible. Officers averaged about 95 to 100 offenders to supervise.

In May, caseloads reached 111 offenders per officer, despite the agency's having about 200 more employees than a decade ago and steady increases in its budget.

"It is a recipe for disaster," said Tennessee Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who sat on the Corrections Oversight Committee. "And, if you've got 100 cases for one caseworker, they cannot realistically do a good job. We have no one to blame but ourselves."

Revolving door

On April 19, two probation officers visited the home of Floyd Leroy Craig. Probation officers often partner up for home visits. The 77-year-old sex offender, convicted of attempted aggravated sexual battery, wasn't supposed to be near children.

Officers saw toys outside the home, according to court records. They also stopped a young woman walking out of the home with a 1-year-old boy and a diaper bag. She told them that the home was providing day care.

Craig has had a troubled supervision since he was sentenced in 2007. According to probation documents, he didn't attend sex offender treatment, failed to get a polygraph and violated his supervision terms by working near a day care center as an assistant gardener at Vanderbilt University. This was in addition to multiple prior criminal charges, including the murder of his wife in the 1970s, records show.

But Craig may have avoided repercussions because of a revolving door of probation officers - 13 in three years. Six supervised him for less than a month. Those numbers trouble Tullock.

"That would be difficult to keep up with him," he said.

A footnote in the report indicates that questions about sex offender supervision extend beyond the Craig case: "[Board of Probation and Parole] Sex Offender Unit has had inadequate officer staffing since [December] 2008 and Craig's case has been passed on to new hires who don't seem to stay with the agency long enough to completely address compliance issues in the files."

Tullock was at a loss to explain that note, written by a Davidson County parole officer. When asked whether it was true, he replied, "I don't know. I don't know we have anything to measure that against. I don't know what the staffing was at that instant. I don't know what the author's mindset was."

Craig was arrested on multiple charges of violating the terms of his supervision. He was found guilty June 13 of one of those charges.

No way to visit him

Probation officers thought Robert Simmons was still homeless. Since 2006, that appeared to be the case, records show, leaving them no way to visit him.

Instead, he had moved in with two women and four children, in spite of a 2003 conviction for attempted aggravated sexual battery. On May 17, he was left to baby-sit 6-month-old Heaven.

According to police records, the child's mother returned to find her daughter not breathing. Emergency officials rushed her to Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, where she died. Simmons has been charged with murder.

According to probation notes, Simmons was similarly troubled while under supervision. The report says he reported only "sporadically" to probation officers and never entered sex offender treatment. In addition, officers had no way to visit him because he maintained that he was homeless.

Heaven's death prompted the agency to begin a top-to-bottom review of their Davidson County sex offender unit.

"We're going to look at everything to make sure that the assessments have been done properly, look at how the cases are being supervised, from top to bottom," Tullock said. "And, as a part of that, look and see if that unit is properly staffed."

Attorneys for both sex offenders could not be reached for comment.

Own standards unmet

The agency has struggled for more than a decade to meet its own standards for staffing and supervision, admitting in audits and interviews that officers have not been able to be as thorough as they would have liked. A 2001 audit complained that too many cases, not enough training and too much turnover led to supervision problems. A 2006 audit echoed those findings.

Tullock acknowledged that the agency rarely meets its own standards for adequate supervision. Officers are required every month to perform a certain number of home visits, records checks, employment verifications and other activities for each offender, based on his or her risk level. The agency expects officers to complete at least 90 percent of those checks, but that rarely occurs.

"We've had some months where literally every work unit across the state has been able to meet the 90 percent standard," Tullock said.

"If you wanted to meet 90 percent standards for everyone, then you had to lower your standards, which we've refused to do."

In addition, the agency consistently has lagged behind its own standards for lowering officer turnover. The latest numbers put the turnover rate at about 10.5 percent. By 2009, the agency had hoped to have that down to 8 percent.

Tullock said that parole oversight is a difficult, high-stress, high-intensity job and that such turnover rates are expected.

This year, the Tennessee Department of Correction plans to release as many as 2,000 prison inmates up to two months early. The release is part of a budget-reduction plan that allows inmates to take special life and work skills classes to shave 60 days off their sentences.

Tullock said that such a release would put caseloads up to 114 or 115 per officer, making oversight that much harder.

"It's like trying to put 10 pounds of mud in a 5-pound sack. We have done what we reasonably can do with the resources that we have to try to improve on what we do," he said. "We've got to quit doing something else. And I don't know what that 'else' is."