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Parole board slow to fix victim notification snafu, records show

Sep 15, 2014 | by Lynn Powell

More problems for understaff and underfunded Pardon & Parole Board. But considering the Governor has only signed 21 paroles in the last 8 months according to the BOC report figures.

By CARY ASPINWALL World Staff Writer | Posted: Monday, September 15, 2014 12:00 am

Six months after computer problems dissolved the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s entire victim database, officials say the information has been recovered and they’re taking steps to ensure victims are notified before hearings.

However, records show it took the agency more than two months to seek help from the Office of Management and Enterprise Services in recovering the database, used to notify crime victims of parole hearings.

The database problem was brought to the public’s attention by the Attorney General’s office on March 8. But officials at management and enterprises services, which provides technical support to state agencies, say they weren’t contacted by the parole board until May 15.

The victim information database was recovered within a few hours by management and enterprises services, according to department spokesman John Estus. That database contains contact information for more than 10,000 crime victims in Oklahoma.

It’s unknown how many crime victims missed notifications about hearings while the database was down.

One murder victim’s relative contacted the Tulsa World after nearly missing the opportunity to write protest letters before a killer’s hearing in June, when she did not receive notice from the Pardon and Parole Board.

The World requested records and emails from officials at four state agencies to track the origin of the problem with the board’s database and pinpoint when it was supposed to have been fixed.

The District Attorneys Council and Pardon and Parole Board provided those records prior to publication of this story. The World’s requests to the Attorney General’s office and the Office of Management and Enterprise Services are pending.

The emails and memos requested by the World show that a day after the database was reportedly fixed, board Chairman Marc Dreyer met with Gov. Mary Fallin’s office to discuss continuing concerns about the debacle.

Records show that Dreyer’s meeting notes mention the lack of a recovery plan for the database was a problem, and that comments from the District Attorneys Council and others present convinced him “our efforts with victims have been woefully inadequate.”

To ensure victims aren’t left out of the process, Dreyer wrote, the governor’s office added new requirements to verify that victims have been notified before the board considers any parole cases.

But Tonya McCullough Berish wants to know: If Oklahoma’s database was repaired in May, why didn’t she receive a letter before a June hearing for the man who killed her mother and aunt? Are there other crime victims who might be missing hearings?

While the Parole Board’s system was down, victims were encouraged to register with the national Victim Information and Notification Everyday database. Known as VINE, the service is available to the public and is funded by the Attorney General’s office.

Berish said that without the VINE system, she never would have known that convicted killer Ronald Koonce was considered at a June parole hearing for the first stage of the parole process for violent offenders.

Her family kept vigilant watch on Koonce’s status, registered for Pardon and Parole board notifications, checked the board’s website and signed up for all possible alerts, she said. This year, she said, the Department of Corrections’ website listed Koonce’s next chance as 2017.

But in June, Berish’s family received a VINE alert saying Koonce would be considered by the board in less than two weeks.

They never received a letter from the Pardon and Parole Board that usually notifies victims of their right to protest at the hearing and write letters in advance, Berish said.

She called the board, and an employee told her the family would be allowed to fax protest letters to the office, since the hearing date was approaching. Berish said that was when she was told of the agency’s database corruption.

“It doesn’t seem like the victim database has been fixed,” she said. “And it’s so important.”

Lesley March, chief of the Victims’ Services Unit at the Attorney General’s Office, said the VINE alert system is fully functional and can notify victims of an approaching hearing for an inmate, a facility transfer, release on GPS monitor and other changes.

But the Pardon and Parole Board’s notification database is used to send “very specific” information to crime victims who’ve registered, including when to write protest letters, where to send letters, and dates they can appear at hearings to protest in person, she said.

“The best-case scenario is that (victims) should sign up for both. Our hope is that they would work hand in hand,” she said. “I hope that it’s fixed.”

Dreyer told the World in an interview last week: “We’re reasonably certain that we got it all.”

The agency and board have “really scaled up our efforts in contacting victims,” he said. A victim coordinator has been hired to help crime victims better navigate the parole process.

“What I’m concerned about is, we don’t have as many victims registered with us as we should,” he said. “We just want to try to get the word out; we want to make this process clear and easy to understand.”

Fallin’s spokesman, Alex Weintz, said: “We have been encouraged by recent steps made to shore up the system under Interim Director Jari Askins.”

Askins, who joined the agency Sept. 2, said she met with the District Attorney’s Council and Attorney General’s Office prior to the parole board’s September hearing, which begins this week in Oklahoma City.

At the meeting, Askins said, she asked if she could double-check the board’s monthly list of victims against lists kept by the district attorneys and Victims’ Services.

“At least for this month, their names were the same as ours,” Askins said. “I felt encouraged that maybe we were on track.”

She plans to do that for several months to ensure the database is accurate, and also review other ways the agency can make the parole process easier for the public to understand and navigate, she said.

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