The glitch that allowed the early release of 3,200 prisoners is a unique opportunity to learn more about alternative approaches in corrections and re-entry into society.

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THE computer code glitch that resulted in the miscalculation of sentence lengths and the early release of 3,200 prisoners by the state Department of Corrections offers an unprecedented opportunity to study the impact of shorter sentences on public safety, the economic benefits of a reduction in time served, and the impact of the early releases on victims and on individuals sent back to prison.

So far, 28 offenders have been identified as committing crimes, mostly misdemeanors, on days that they would have been in prison had it not been for the miscalculation. Two of these offenders committed homicides. One of the most important questions to be examined is how the recidivism rates of the group of individuals released early compare with an equivalent group of those who were not. We have an opportunity to examine the costs and benefits of slightly shorter sentence lengths.

The individual impact of a single prisoner released early who harms someone is enormous from a public-safety perspective. So far, we know that 28 out of the 3,200 offenders released early committed a new offense during the early release window, or 0.88 percent. We expect that more will eventually commit new crimes, as research suggests that 5 percent to 6 percent of offenders are likely to be prolific, lifelong persistent offenders who will reoffend throughout their lives regardless of how many times they are incarcerated or how many days early or later they are released.

This means that we should expect that 160 to 192 of the 3,200 early released offenders could recidivate no matter what — 28 is an unexpectedly low number. What can these patterns tell us about the offenders coming out of Washington prisons?

Jacqueline B. Helfgott is a professor and chair of the Seattle University Department of Criminal Justice.
Jacqueline B. Helfgott is a professor and chair of the Seattle University Department of Criminal Justice. Peter A. Collins is an assistant professor at the Seattle University Department of Criminal Justice.

According to the DOC, the average cost per inmate per day is about $92. Economic analyses would involve many more data points and considerations, but simple calculations show that the 59-day early release saved more than $17 million (less than the costs associated with new offenses) over the course of the mistake.

If the recidivism rates are similar between people released early and those released on time, the state would have spent less money on those released early without significantly increasing risk to public safety. Is it perhaps a better public-safety investment to reduce sentence lengths and to shift savings to prison and re-entry programs (potentially a shorter sentence in exchange for education and job training)?

Some former prisoners are being asked to turn themselves in to complete their remaining sentences. So far, 112 of the 3,200 released have been identified for return to confinement, 87 of whom have been returned to custody. What is the impact of being sent back to prison on those who thought they’d completed their sentences, took the initial steps to return to society, and then only suddenly to return to prison?

What about their families? Will returning to prison after beginning to rebuild their lives further inhibit their ability to succeed in the future?

Most important, do victims care if their offenders were released 59 days early? A victim’s family alerted the DOC to the glitch. Does this mean that all victims are opposed to or detrimentally impacted by the early release? One victimized person may see justice as long-term incarceration while another may view justice as creating opportunities for the offender to re-enter society as quickly as possible to build a constructive life and make reparations in the community rather than being housed in prison on taxpayers’ dollars.

Let’s do something constructive with this unfortunate situation and study the broad impact of a 59-day early release on victims, offenders, the community and the economy.

As the nation takes a hard look at reforming our criminal-justice system, Washington’s situation provides a unique opportunity to learn more about alternative approaches in corrections and re-entry.

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