When a neo-Nazi gang member was released from prison four years too early, then wreaked havoc with his unearned freedom by killing two people — including the state corrections chief on the front porch of his house — people around the country were shocked by the audacity of it all.
The Colorado prison scandal from 2013 seemed surreal and far away. It could never happen here.
Now it has. And the long list of Washington felons prematurely put on the streets points to a systemic breakdown that’s making the Colorado tragedy pale by comparison. There, the number of mistakenly released offenders counted in the hundreds; here, it’s in the thousands.
The most inexplicable part? Had it not been for an attentive crime victim’s family, Washington prisoners still might be walking out early today.
Gov. Jay Inslee and leaders from the state Department of Corrections disclosed on Dec. 22 that up to 3,200 inmates had been released early since 2002. Their sentences were improperly shortened because of a computer program’s generous miscalculation of the “good time” they’d earned. Officials were made aware of the error by a victim’s family in 2012, but oddly, a software fix was delayed 16 times.
If Washington residents felt like a king-size lump of coal had been dropped in their stockings, imagine what it felt like to be a victim of one of these criminals. Or the spouse of an ex-con who was living straight, maybe raising a family, but now faced being hauled back to prison.
Things went from bad to worse after Christmas when officials shared that two of the earlybirds (of those identified so far) had been charged with killings: one for vehicular homicide, the other for first-degree murder.
In Colorado, when prisoner Evan Ebel committed two murders and died in a police shootout after walking free, media reports described it as a clerical error.
Here, some are calling it a software glitch. That might be OK if the mistake were limited to coding problems, but it grossly understates the negligence that followed the discovery of those problems three years ago. The situation rose to the attention of DOC managers and to an assistant attorney general who deemed it “not so urgent” because of the pending software fix, which never came.
Inslee and Corrections leaders have offered apologies and pledges of accountability. But in a crisis that spans three governors, three attorneys general and five prison system directors, citizens might reasonably question whether anyone will answer for it.
Legislators and other election-year campaigners will surely find convenient targets. They should wait until an outside investigation ordered by Inslee is completed in two months.
Corrections officials seem to be heeding the governor’s order to fix it right. They’re scouring the 3,000-plus names and tracking down those who should still be incarcerated. They plan to implement a software solution by Jan. 13, and will keep manually recalculating sentences through Feb. 7. Until then — and even after — crime victim families would be wise to call the Victim Services Program at (800) 322-2201 for offender release updates.
Let’s hope trust is eventually restored to the point that victims know they’re receiving reliable information from DOC. They should never have to be the ones providing it.