Community Watchdog investigation prompts TDOC to revise supervision policy

SULLIVAN COUNTY, TN (WJHL) – Two months after our Community Watchdog first started questioning a new Tennessee Department of Correction probation and parole supervision policy, the state is reversing course temporarily in light of concerns uncovered by our investigation.

The Tennessee Department of Correction confirms the agency recently revised its telephone reporting policy so some convicted violent offenders are no longer allowed to check in with their probation officers by phone.

“While research shows that the department was correct in using telephone reporting for low risk offenders, we want to be responsive to the concerns made by the District Attorney and members of our legislature,” a TDOC statement reads.”We continuously reassess and employ best practices for not only keeping the community safe but making sure they also feel safe. We’ve decided to remove some low risk offenders with a violent criminal history from telephone reporting while we continue to educate all stakeholders on the merits of this tool.”

A TDOC spokesperson says at the moment, she does not have the number of people impacted by the change.

Instead of checking in all the time face-to-face, our investigation found thousands of felons, including 14 first and second-degree murderers in Northeast Tennessee, who could check in most of the time using an automated phone reporting system. Our investigation revealed that group also included people convicted of child abuse and neglect and burglary.

The decision to remove those people from phone reporting comes after Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus and Rep. Jon Lundberg (R-District 1) argued the program puts the public’s safety at risk.

Just last week Rep. Lundberg told us he requested a special hearing before the Governor’s Task Force on Sentencing and Recidivism about this particular issue. He said after repeat meetings with the TDOC commissioner and other executive staff, he still wasn’t convinced the policy made Tennessee safer.

“I’m glad the Department reconsidered this policy,” Rep. Lundberg said Friday. “I’m also glad WJHL brought this issue to the forefront, not just in the Tri-Cities, but across the state.”

TDOC originally changed its policy late last year without giving some key stakeholders a heads up that the major change was in the works; something the state later admitted it could have done a better job communicating. The change doubled the number of low risk offenders on phone reporting.

The deputy commissioner insisted the change was a more efficient use of resources and he said it improved public safety. That plan dedicated most of the agency’s resources to supervising people an assessment program classified as higher risk, while pulling back the level of supervision for people determined to be lower risk offenders, including some convicted of murder.

In early January, an East Tennessee State University professor told us the state’s policy actually made a lot of sense.

Today DA Staubus shared his relief with the state’s change of heart.

“I’m pleased,” he said. “I think the public will be better served and safer by reducing some of the people who’ve been convicted of crimes against a person from the phone in system. The department had stated they wanted to listen, that they wanted to re-evaluate. I’m hoping that once this became public that they re-evaluated and I know they talked to other DAs across the state and they probably got some feedback and felt this was the appropriate thing to do. I think they’ve listened and I think they’ve tried to adjust their policy based on the feedback they got from prosecutors and other people across the state.”

Copyright WJHL 2015. All rights reserved.

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