By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Correction said he has addressed problems found in a performance audit by the state comptroller’s office that showed at least 82 people who parole officers claimed they checked on were actually dead.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, Derrick Schofield talked about the audit and how his department was faring since it took responsibility for certain services in the Board of Parole.
The audit released in October found problems with parole checks that had been reported between January 2011 and May 2012.
Schofield said an internal investigation revealed no wrongdoing by staffers but uncovered problems with a faulty data entry process.
He said the department has since developed procedures for identifying and removing deceased offenders from rosters. This includes using databases that collect information on deaths reported in Tennessee and nationally to cross-reference individuals under supervision.
Schofield said he also instructed staffers to make face-to-face visits with each of the department’s nearly 79,000 probationers and parolees. He said a connection was made with most of those individuals.
“The image we want to demonstrate is that we will be in the community, and we will be knocking on doors,” Schofield said. “We will check you at work.”
Under legislation passed last year, several functions were transferred to the Correction Department relating to probation and parole and the community corrections program, which assists victims and offers more options to local courts.
A 2011 report on parole practices cited a collaborative effort between the Board of Probation and Parole and the Correction Department as an effective way to assess the needs of offenders when resources are limited by budget restraints. The move was expected to save thousands of dollars.
Since the transfer, Schofield said he hasn’t just noticed financial benefits but a more efficient way to monitor offenders.
For instance, he said, a GPS monitoring device is now placed on individuals the day before they’re released from prison, where before there may have been a lag time of up to five days.
“When they leave, we know where they are,” Schofield said. “We’re tracking them from the minute they walk out of that gate.”
The commissioner said he’s also working on programs to help offenders transition back into society.
One is called a “day reporting center,” which he said would not only create a way to keep tabs on parolees, but also help them get jobs.
Another program will allow a church to take an inmate who’s released from prison under its wing and care for him or her for a year. Schofield said his department would provide training, while the church helps with food, clothing and finding employment.
“Look at the number of churches in Tennessee; think about that,” he said. “Think about the impact that could have if each church takes one offender … watches them for a year.”
State Rep. Johnny Shaw, who is a minister and has been helping to get other pastors involved in the program, agreed.
“I think the church can play a great role at that point in helping them to restart their lives,” said the Bolivar Democrat. “Because the most critical part of reform is when that person steps out of that correctional facility to be a free person again.”
James Settles is the founder of a Nashville transitional housing program that helps ex-felons reintegrate into society. He said programs that assist individuals newly released from prison have their place, but inmates should be urged to take advantage of those programs in prisons — such as GED initiatives — that also play a strong role in helping a person readjust on the outside.
“I think the tragedy is when a guy can go to prison for four or five years … and not be challenged to get a GED,” Settles said. “We have to get to the point on the inside where we’re about rehabilitating people.”