NASHVILLE - In the past 19 months, the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole has shifted nearly 3,500 felons to a telephone supervision system to ease crushing caseloads that have hurt its ability to supervise criminals.
The agency said the new system - which allows offenders to make a monthly call to a computerized telephone menu instead of dealing directly with a parole officer - is designed for those considered a low risk.
But 9 percent of the offenders on the phone-in system in Davidson County - or 42 out of 479 offenders - are murderers, according to June data obtained by The Tennessean.
Another five offenders were convicted of attempted murder and 51 were convicted or robbery, the Nashville newspaper reports.
The Board of Probation and Parole declined multiple requests to interview staff and Chairman Charles Traughber about the Interactive Offender Tracking, the newspaper reported.
Department spokeswoman Melissa McDonald said offenders are eligible for the system if they have been determined by parole officers to be a minimum risk, have a good history of paying fees and following terms of their probation and have no felony arrests within the prior year.
The offender's criminal history is taken into account, in addition to his or her history of cooperating with parole officers. Sex offenders are not eligible for the telephone check-in.
One of those deemed to be an ideal candidate for the new supervisory system was Anthony Ussery. The 30-year-old man was convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of a man in a Nashville grocery store parking lot, beating an ex-girlfriend and possessing cocaine. And when released on parole, he was arrested at least six times in his first 21/2 years of supervision.
McDonald said that in spite of his problems, "at the time Mr. Ussery was placed on [Interactive Offender Tracking] supervision, he met the criteria for the program and had been on minimum supervision for more than one year."
In e-mailed responses, the agency defended the phone system, saying it was a way to alleviate caseloads and reward offenders who follow the rules. They said the failure rate of offenders in this system is only about 4.5 percent.
"[The telephone system] is an incentive for those who have already shown they can be successful in complying with the standards of supervision," McDonald wrote. "If they do not comply with the program, their IOT privilege is terminated and they are returned to regular supervision."
Before Ussery was placed on the telephone tracking system, records show, his parole officers either missed or ignored multiple violations of his parole requirements, the newspaper reported.
Ussery's wife, Tiffaney, said that in spite of the arrests, the state saw that he was on the right track.
"I feel like, with three years without getting into any of the physical or guns stuff ... that you should have a chance to grow," she said.
But for relatives of Tremain Coleman, the man killed Dec. 15, 2002, in that parking lot, the state's lenient oversight of Anthony Ussery and violent felons like him is inexcusable. Ussery was one of two men who robbed Coleman, and he drove the get away car after a cohort shot Coleman dead.
"Clearly he's a dangerous person. I would hope that someone with a rap sheet like that would be monitored closely," said Coleman's sister, Nichole Thomas, 28, of St. Louis. "I don't want him to destroy a family like he did ours."