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Corrections Dept. not seeking more parole officers despite caseload warnings

12:12 PM, Nov 14, 2012   |    comments
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Despite years of audits saying that caseloads have become dangerously high, Tennessee won't be getting additional parole and probation officers in the next year.

The Tennessee Department of Correction on Tuesday gave an $850 million budget pitch to Gov. Bill Haslam as part of the administration's ongoing budget hearings. The department's proposed budget would include regular contract cost increases, in addition to more funding for more inmates coming into the system.

State auditors for years have warned that caseloads for officers who supervise released felons have grown untenable, potentially putting the public at risk. But Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield said the agency, which took control of the state's parole and probation supervision duties in July, isn't asking for any additional officers.

"It's still early to just say we need 100 or we need 200 officers. What we have to look at is look at, what are our processes," Schofield said. "The officers say, 'We're overloaded with paperwork.' So, if we can eliminate some of the paperwork, that gives them the opportunity to do some other work. So you examine on the inside first before you go out and say, 'We need...'"

Complicating matters could be a continuing increase in the number of felons that the state has to supervise both in prison and after their release -- some 108,000 of them, with about 30,000 incarcerated. Haslam asked Schofield what could be driving the increase in state felons.

"It would be helpful for me if you all could get that information, in terms of admissions. If our admissions are going up, can we go back and look at that -- is that more crimes being committed, where sentencing has changed or more people are serving?" Haslam said. "Help us understand kind of what's driving that."

Schofield offered no specific answers, but said his agency is performing a historical analysis of prison populations that should be completed by February. He said that the number of new people admitted into prison has outpaced the number of people who left the system. And those who come into the system are staying longer as well.

That trend has made housing inmates difficult. When beds get scarce, the state contracts with local jails to house inmates, but at a greater cost than in a prison.

In the current fiscal year, housing inmates in county jails caused the Department of Correction to run $20 million over budget.

Some relief could come with the addition of 1,500 new prison beds in Bledsoe County, set to be filled by February or March.

All state agencies were asked to also pitch a theoretical budget with a 5 percent cut. Schofield said that such a cut, if enacted, would result in the loss of 1,200 beds and 450 correctional staff members.

Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8968 or bhaas@tennessean.com.

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