“Amelia Keown’s Law” stalls in House
By Wes Wade | (email@example.com)
A law seeking to make the parole granting process stricter for dangerous felons has stalled in the House.
House Bill 199, known as “Amelia Keown’s Law,” is named after 16-year-old William Blount High School junior Amelia Keown, who was killed in a fatal two-vehicle crash last August. The alleged at-fault driver in the crash, 44-year-old Maryville resident John Charles Perkins, was on parole at the time and had a lengthy criminal record which included numerous traffic violations and automobile accidents. Perkins died the day after the crash at University of Tennessee Medical Center.
Once Amelia Keown’s mother and grandfather, Amanda Moore and Wayne Keown, learned of Perkins’ criminal history — which included several charges of theft, drug possession and delivery, violation of probation, contempt of court, evading police, felony escape and robbery charges — they started a campaign to make it harder for dangerous felons to make parole. Seeking a law similar to the “Three Strikes Law,” they began speaking to numerous state officials, including Rep. Bob Ramsey, Sen. Doug Overbey and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey.
A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation toxicology report released last November showed that Perkins had methamphetamine and oxycodone in his system at the time of the crash. A Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) Trooper clocked Perkins traveling 73 mph in a 55-mph zone.
The THP report said that Perkins’ vehicle crossed the center line of U.S. 411 near Springview Road and struck Keown’s vehicle, instantly killing the 16-year-old.
“Amelia Keown’s Law” is intended to keep repeat felons behind bars, specifically those who have been shown to pose a threat to the public.
Bill put on hold
Rep. Rick Womick is the prime sponsor of the bill in the House. He serves Rutherford County, which includes the cities of Smyrna, Eagleville and Murfreesboro. Womick introduced the bill last week for a vote, but Gov. Haslam’s administration had looked at the bill, which would cost $668,000 to implement, and decided the state budget would not be able to fund the bill’s implementation. If the bill would have passed, it would have gone onto the Senate for a vote. If it passed in the Senate, it would have taken effect July 1.
As written, the new legislation would require the vote of four members of the board of probation and parole to grant or deny parole, whereas previously, the vote of only three members was required for certain crimes. The bill would also clarify certain records of parolees that are subject to public disclosure, change the quorum requirement of the board of probation and parole from a majority of the members to five members.
The legislation would also require that the nine-member Board of Parole (BOP) keep records which may include social, physical, mental, psychiatric and criminal information for every inmate considered for or released.
While the BOP board may make rules, as it deems proper, as to the privacy of the record and of the records of its employment bureau, and their use by others than the board and its staff, the following information may be contained in the board’s file and shall not be considered confidential:
• Probation or parole officer’s statements accompanying violation reports
• Statements of public officials, including the district attorney general, in support of or in opposition to the grant or denial of parole
Since the bill was flagged as legislation the state budget could not cover this year, the bill will have to be put aside and brought back up in next year’s House meeting. Sen. Doug Overbey, the prime sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said he plans to speak about the importance of the legislation Tuesday during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting.
“I do plan to speak on it Tuesday and talk about the need (for the bill),” Overbey said. “And that’s probably where it will sit until next year and then we’ll go at it again.”
Overbey said they may have to restructure the language of the bill in order to get it passed in the House and onto the Senate for a vote next year.
“One thing I’ve learned is some of the best ideas you don’t always accomplish the first year,” Overbey said. “You’ve got to keep plucking at them and it may take one year, two years or three years to get the job done.”
Long, winding road
Rep. Ramsey, who is a co-sponsor of the bill, said Rep. Womick had approached him Wednesday or Thursday and informed him that the bill had been flagged and would be set aside to be voted on next year.
“That’s normal,” Ramsey said. “I’ve seen fiscal notes fail for $4,000 or $5,000. And we hoped that wouldn’t occur, but any time you keep people in jail you’re going to incur some large costs.”
Wayne Keown said he and his daughter, Amanda Moore, were disappointed that the legislation did not pass this time, but that they are going to keep fighting to get the bill through the legislature and made into law.
“No matter how long this is going to take, me and Amanda are not going to give up fighting on it because we don’t want another family to go through this,” Wayne Keown said. “This is not how a government should be. A government should take care of its citizens and this is a money issue, I know that, but what takes precedence, the money, or the citizens?
“We are disappointed that it didn’t make it this round, but we’re not going to give up the fight and we encourage everybody to stand behind us because it’s not just our issue,” he continued. “It’s everybody’s issue, because if we let dangerous felons out we’re not just harming ourselves, but others. And I know the grief I go through and I know the grief my wife and Amanda have gone through and I don’t want anybody else to go through that unnecessarily ... we just want something so that Amelia’s death will not be in vain and we can actually use this to do some good.”
Ramsey said he’ll help in whatever way possible to ensure that corrections are made that will hopefully prevent the unnecessary future loss of life.
“The response that I had given to the family was (that) we knew it would be a long and difficult process and I begged them not to let us forget or not let us be aggressive in pursuing the corrections to the problems that caused this young lady’s death,” Ramsey said. “I have the highest respect for this family they went through everything they could go through to find out what happened and what failed in causing this (death) to happen.”
Parole system woes
An audit conducted by the state Comptroller’s Office and released Oct. 1, 2012, found that dozens of dead parolees have been under active supervision throughout the years. The audit found that annual arrest checks were being completed on behalf of at least 82 parolees who had been dead for various lengths of time, ranging from six months to more than 19 years. In some instances, parole officers documented contact with these parolees, indicating that they were still alive.
Gary Tullock, Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) assistant commissioner for community supervision, resigned the day after the audit following a joint subcommittee hearing concerning the audit’s findings.
The audit also noted that many files managed by probation and parole officers were not in compliance with several board supervision requirements and were not regularly reviewed by management. According to the audit report, about half of the cases sampled in the audit were never reviewed by probation and parole supervisors during 2011.
In some cases, officers failed to complete or document their attempts to complete all of the required face-to-face contacts with parolees . In other cases, officers did not perform required home visits of regular offenders. The audit also showed some sex offenders tracked by GPS equipment had not been properly monitored.
Auditors also found a number of other issues with BOP operations, including questionable practices for providing notice of hearing decisions and upcoming board meetings. According to the report, the BOP still fails to comply with state law regarding hearing decisions and letters denying parole omit an inmate’s appeal rights.
Last July, the TDOC took over the supervision of all individuals on probation and parole in the state.
Melissa McDonald, communications director for the BOP, said in an October interview with the Daily Times that the board is still an independent agency that conducts parole hearings, makes parole decisions and provides services to victims of crime.
A Government Operations Joint Subcommittee hearing was held in Nashville one day following the audit where legislators questioned the BOP and TDOC about the audit’s findings.
While supervision of those on probation and parole was only transferred to the TDOC in July, the department answered all questions about supervision of offenders, including the audit findings on dead offenders, McDonald said.
In addition to Tullock’s resignation following the joint subcommittee hearing concerning the audit, two parole officers who falsified reports on dead felons were fired.