Politics & Government

‘Unforgivable error’ results in early release of 3,200 felons from state prisons

In a Dec. 22 press conference, Washington state governor Jay Inslee announced a series of immediate actions to correct errors involving sentencing calculations for "good time" early release scheduling for offenders supervised by the Dept. of Corrections. The governor's office was apparently notified by the DOC in mid-December regarding the the computer coding errors which spanned about 13 years.
In a Dec. 22 press conference, Washington state governor Jay Inslee announced a series of immediate actions to correct errors involving sentencing calculations for "good time" early release scheduling for offenders supervised by the Dept. of Corrections. The governor's office was apparently notified by the DOC in mid-December regarding the the computer coding errors which spanned about 13 years. sbloom@theolympian.com

A computer programming error has caused the state’s prison system to unintentionally release thousands of felons earlier than the law allows — and the problem has been going on for 13 years, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters, Inslee said the error led to an estimated 3,200 prison inmates being awarded too much time off their sentences for good behavior, causing them to be released early.

The mistake affected about 3 percent of offenders released since 2002, according to an initial analysis from the state Department of Corrections.

The median amount of time inmates were released early was about 49 days, said Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke.

“That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing, it is totally unacceptable, and frankly, it is maddening,” Inslee said Tuesday.

Corrections officials said they changed their sentencing calculations following a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling that said prisoners must receive good-time credit for time spent in county jails. But those coding changes mistakenly awarded too much good-time credit to offenders with sentencing enhancements, they said.

Sentencing enhancements include additional time imposed for certain crimes, such as for using firearms or for offenses committed near schools. Under state law, time imposed through sentencing enhancements can’t be reduced through good behavior.

This is a serious failure to follow existing law. We are going to have a very thorough investigation, and we we will take accountability measures as appropriate.

Gov. Jay Inslee on mistakes that led to early release of an estimated 3,200 inmates

Both Inslee and Pacholke said they learned about the problem last week.

However, Pacholke said certain individuals within his agency knew about the issue three years ago, but a fix was never made.

A victim’s family brought the mistake to the department’s attention in 2012, prompting certain corrections employees to ask for a coding update to resolve the problem, officials said. That request languished until a new chief information officer rediscovered the issue last month, according to a timeline of events distributed by the governor’s office Tuesday.

Inslee said he has hired two retired federal prosecutors, Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone, to conduct an independent investigation into why the error occurred and why it wasn’t fixed.

Pacholke, a former deputy corrections secretary whom Inslee appointed to lead the department in October, said he thinks his agency “should be held accountable for this breach.”

“I’ve apologized to the governor personally on behalf of the Department of Corrections for this 13-year error,” Pacholke said. “I want to offer that same apology to the public. It’s an unforgivable error.”

For the moment, Inslee said he has directed DOC to halt releases of any offenders potentially affected by the sentencing error until their release date can be calculated by hand.

Pacholke said the corrections department expects to have a software fix in place by Jan. 7.

Officials said they do not yet know if any of the inmates released early went on to commit other crimes during the time they should have been in prison.

I’ve apologized to the governor personally on behalf of the Department of Corrections ... It’s an unforgivable error.

Dan Pacholke, secretary of the state Department of Corrections

So far, corrections officials have identified seven prisoners who must be brought back to complete their sentences, said Nick Brown, the governor’s general counsel. Five of those already have been returned to state custody, leaving two prematurely released offenders still unaccounted for, he said.

However, state officials expect to identify more offenders who may need to return to state custody as they continue their investigation, Brown said.

“I suspect we’ll have more than seven,” Brown said.

Brown said the state doesn’t have a definitive list of all offenders who were released before their correct date, but officials are working to compile that information.

Most offenders who were released early will not be sent back to prison, Pacholke said. A previous court ruling requires the state to credit the released offenders for the time they’ve spent outside, as long as they’ve met all requirements of their release and stayed out of trouble, he said.

Brown said no one in the Department of Corrections has lost their job over the coding error or the delay in addressing it.

Inslee, however, said the seriousness of the problem could still make that a possibility.

“This is a serious failure to follow existing law,” Inslee said. “We are going to have a very thorough investigation, and we will take accountability measures as appropriate.”

Bill Bryant, Inslee's Republican opponent in the 2016 governor's race, immediately criticized Inslee's reaction Tuesday as "not an acceptable response."

In a prepared statement, Bryant said the prisoner-release error shows Inslee has been more focused on attending climate change talks overseas than fixing problems at home.

"Bureaucrats and Inslee’s political appointees need to be held accountable for knowing about a problem for years and not fixing it," Bryant said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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