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VOL. 37 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 21, 2013

Parole board chairman to retire this week

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NASHVILLE (AP) - When Parole Board Chairman Charles Traughber steps down this week after working with offenders for more than 40 years, he says his fondest memories will be of those he helped work their way back into society.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Traughber said he's often stopped by ex-offenders who want to express their gratitude.

"Twenty years ago, y'all gave me a chance," he recalled one person saying.

Traughber has been working with offenders and ex-offenders since 1969, when he was a prison counselor at the then-Tennessee State Penitentiary, which closed in 1992 after the opening of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution.

He worked his way up to director of counselors before becoming a charter member of the full-time parole board that was established in 1972, then eventually the board's chairman, the title he has held the past 30 years.

"I tried to learn as much as I could and apply myself, " said Traughber, who has worked under eight governors.

Now 70, Traughber has overseen countless hearings, including the only parole hearing of one of Tennessee's most notorious offenders: James Earl Ray. He pleaded guilty in Memphis in 1969 to killing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and was sentenced to 99 years in prison, but recanted the confession three days later.

Ray eventually became eligible for parole in 1994 and went before the parole board that May. Traughber recalled Ray being declined and told he couldn't come back before the 7-member board until 1999. Ray died in prison in 1998.

Traughber said Ray was denied parole mainly because of the "seriousness of the offense."

"We were convinced he did it," he said. "He pled guilty to it, and he couldn't produce anything to say that he didn't do it."

Traughber's service has not gone unnoticed by attorneys, victims' rights advocates, lawmakers and state officials, including current Gov. Bill Ha slam.

"As a new administration, it is always useful to have veteran voices to assist you when you take office, and Charles was really helpful," said Haslam, who is in his third year.

"He has incredible experience, and I appreciate his willingness to serve and his dedication to making Tennessee a safer place."

While chairman, Traughber was instrumental in the development of video conferencing, which has saved taxpayer dollars by preventing board members from having to travel to prisons for hearings.

It has also made it convenient for victims' families, as well as the offender's family, who can now go to a location convenient for them and still be able to participate in the hearing.

"That's a huge thing," said former Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte, founder of You Have the Power, a crime victims' advocacy group. "Because what used to happen was people had to take time off from work, sometime a whole day. So, it's just been much more convenient."< /P>

Nashville District Attorney General Torry Johnson said under Traughber's leadership he's seen an improvement in the board's relationship with victims and prosecutors. He said there's a greater effort to "get them involved in the process."

"Before he started, there was very little of that," said Johnson, who has known Traughber for as long as he's been chairman. "I think he has worked hard to involve prosecutors and victims in the process to ensure that the parole board has a full picture of what they're dealing with; they're not just sort of hearing one side of the story."

State Sen. Ken Yager is chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, which often hears budget presentations from different state departments. The Harriman Republican said he could tell from his interaction with Traughber that he seemed "very interested in the men and women that his department oversees."

"He's a fair-minded man who is really interested in redeeming ind ividuals," Yager said.

Traughber has also helped implement a legislative measure to move certain functions relating to probation and parole services and the community corrections program, which assists victims and offers more options to local courts, to the state Correction Department.

Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield called Traughber "both a friend and mentor."

"Tennessee is a better state because of his knowledge and deep concern for the people he has served for 44 years," he said.

Traughber didn't specify his future plans after he steps down on Friday. His wife, longtime state Rep. Lois DeBerry, is battling pancreatic cancer.

Traughber said the Memphis Democrat's illness was not a factor in his decision to retire, but he plans to care for her as needed.

"It's been a difficult time for her, but she's ... a fighter," he said.