Tragedies focus attention on sentencing laws

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 11:01 AM

SEVIERVILLE —After last year saw two tragic wrecks involving convicted felons who were out on early release, local lawmakers are working to strengthen the state’s sentencing laws.

Sixteen-year-old Amelia Keown, died Aug. 14 in a wreck on Highway 411 in Blount County while she was making a quick trip to her home to pick up pom poms for dance practice after school. Instead, she met up with 44-year-old John Charles Perkins, who had been released early from prison and was driving under the influence of a cocktail of drugs. Keown died in the wreck; Perkins died the following day. His blood tests showed he had a near toxic level of oxycodone, along with methamphetamine, in his system when he crashed head-on into her car.

Keown’s family is outraged that Perkins was on early release from prison, despite a lengthy criminal record. They’ve been fighting since then to prevent similar tragedies by strengthening laws designed to keep repeat offenders behind bars, especially when their crimes indicate they’re a danger to the public.

But a similar tragedy occurred just a month later, and not far away — here in Sevier County.

On Sept. 16, a van full of teens and young adults from Cedar Grove Baptist Church was coming down Chapman Highway when it crossed paths with 21-year-old Tyler Schaeffer, who veered into its lane and struck the van head-on. The impact sent the van rolling off the road, where it caught fire. The driver, 45-year-old Jeffrey Tressell, of Maryville, died along with 16-year-old Courteney Kaliszewski, who was a Seymour High School student The other occupants of the van suffered injuries in the wreck as well.

Schaeffer, who prosecutors say was high on bath salts, was out on probation from burglary and robbery charges after completing a boot camp program designed to help him overcome substance abuse issues. There were warrants for his arrest in Sevier County, but law enforcement hadn’t picked him up.

Now, after weeks in a Knoxville hospital, Schaeffer is in the Sevier County Jail facing vehicular homicide and other charges related to the wreck.

Local lawmakers Doug Overbey and Bob Ramsey are looking to change the laws that let convicted criminals get out far earlier than what their sentences indicate. The initiative started with Keown’s family, and is named Amanda’s Law.

“I think there are some parallels (between the wrecks),” Overbey said. “I think the two accidents sort of magnified the problem.”

He and Ramsey have met with Keown’s family, and they’re working to draft a law that helps address the issue.

“I think what we’re going to work on is strengthening our system of probation and paroles to make sure folks serve their time and there’s thoroughness in working out the offender’s background before they’re released,’ he said.

Ramsey acknowledges there were breakdowns across the board in Perkins’s case — by the judge, law enforcement, the corrections system, the parole board, even society at large.

But changes to sentencing guidelines would be difficult to enforce, he said, with jails and prisons already overcrowded.

The law he and Overbey are working on will address issues with the parole board specifically, he said, because that’s where they think they have the best chance at having an impact.

A performance audit the state preformed on the board of probation and parole last year revealed a number of problems in itself, including records indicating 82 offenders were being actively monitored after they had died.

The audit also found errors including probation and parole officers who weren’t meeting supervision requirements, a need for better procedures for posting meeting notices, and others.

Ramsey and Overbey believe that has helped other legislators realize there are serious issues that need to be addressed, and it has them hopeful they can get new laws passed. The governor’s office started working on changes to the laws already, and now the two of them are working with the office.

And Ramsey believes records the Keowns showed him indicate Perkins’s case was symptomatic of those issues.

“We’re trying to make the parole board responsible, put responsible people on there, have a specific measure of how the boards are supposed to function,” he said.

“We need to streamline it and make it uniform and reasonable.”