Communication problems on IT issues within the state Department of Corrections likely contributed to the agency’s failure to stop — for years — the mistaken early release of prisoners.
OLYMPIA — A state Department of Corrections (DOC) official told lawmakers Thursday morning he came to believe the agency had communication problems in how it dealt with IT issues, shortcomings that likely contributed to the yearslong failure to make a software fix and halt the mistaken early release of prisoners.
“I’m not really sure anyone knew who was making decisions in prioritization,” said Ira Feuer, chief information officer for DOC, who began work at the agency in August. “It didn’t seem to be just one individual … it was a systemic problem.”
The software-programming error dated to 2002. Although DOC officials learned of the problem in 2012, a software fix was delayed 16 times. Only after Gov. Jay Inslee and DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke announced the problem in December was a fix made.
DOC staff speaking Monday before the Senate Law and Justice Committee, which is conducting an investigation into the issue, told lawmakers the programming fix was downgraded to a lower priority.
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Feuer told the committee Thursday he learned of the problem a few months ago, in early November, from DOC records administrator Wendy Stigall. In December 2012 Stigall submitted a work ticket for an IT fix to the problem.
“I could tell she was very frustrated about it,” Feuer said, recalling their November conversation.
But even in late November, “I didn’t know the magnitude of the problem,” Feuer said. In mid-December Feuer learned the sentencing miscalculations potentially affected thousands of prisoners.
That awareness came only when enough of a software coding fix had been completed for the agency to run a simulation to determine who would be affected.
The simulation “pulled up thousands of names,” he said. “I knew that was critical at that point.”
A recent DOC review of more than 1,500 potentially affected inmates released since December 2011 showed three-quarters of them had been mistakenly released early. If that projection holds, about 2,800 offenders since 2002 might have been freed before their correct release dates.
Inslee and Pacholke have said they learned of the problem in mid-December 2015.
This month has seen the resignation of Pacholke — appointed secretary by Inslee in October — who accused Sen. Mike Padden, Law and Justice Committee chairman, of “blaming and shaming” the agency, as well as two state employees who had knowledge of the problem in 2012.
Thursday’s hearing also revealed that the Senate removed an attorney working on the investigation after that attorney emailed Feuer.
Monte Gray, who works for Davis Wright Tremaine, the law firm contracted by the Senate to help with the investigation, asked Feuer about personnel actions that could be taken.
In the email, Gray listed three DOC workers who could lose their jobs after Inslee’s investigation is released and noted that others involved in the sentencing problem already have stepped down. After stating he had “strong opinions” about “throwing those three under the bus,” Gray wrote Feuer: “I’d be interested in your views and how much you’d be willing to say publicly.”
Feuer told lawmakers he found the email “strange” and reported it to his superiors. Padden apologized to Feuer during the hearing for the email and said Gray has been removed from the investigation.
In mid-February, Ronda Larson, an assistant attorney general, announced her resignation. Larson had advised Corrections staff in 2012 that the software problem was “not so urgent” as to require agency staff to recalculate sentences and stop inmates’ early releases.
Last week, Denise Doty stepped down from a position at the state Office of Financial Management, the agency she joined in 2015.
In 2012, Doty was an assistant secretary at DOC and possibly the highest-ranking administrator to have known about the problem.
Officials said last year that two people were killed by offenders while they should have been in prison.
Other prisoners released early and trying to rebuild their lives have been rounded up by DOC to serve the remainder of their sentences.