A state Senate committee has approved legislation to implement the recommendations of a GOP-led investigation into the state’s mistaken early release of prisoners.
OLYMPIA — A state Senate committee has approved legislation to implement the recommendations of a GOP-led investigation into the state’s mistaken early release of prisoners.
The bill, SB 5294, is sponsored by GOP Sens. Mike Padden of Spokane Valley and Steve O’Ban of University Place and was approved by the Senate Law and Justice Committee.
The two Republicans last year led their own investigation into the long-running sentence miscalculations that freed as many as 2,700 prisoners early, according to estimates by the state Department of Corrections (DOC).
In late 2015, Gov. Jay Inslee and DOC staffers announced the existence of the problem, which began in 2002. The family of a crime victim notified DOC about the issue in 2012, but a software-programming fix was delayed 16 times — and not made until 2016, after the errors became public.
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At least two people were killed by offenders who should have been in prison but were released early, officials have said. Other offenders released early and who were trying to work their way back into society were rounded up and sent back to prison.
An investigation ordered by Inslee determined that ignored emails, poor advice and communication lapses allowed the state to continue releasing prisoners early after the sentence errors were discovered in 2012.
Padden and O’Ban reached a different conclusion, largely blaming Bernie Warner, who served as corrections secretary between July 2011 and October 2015, before leaving to work in the private sector.
Among other things, SB 5294 creates an independent ombudsman’s office to serve as a watchdog for DOC and requires a legislative audit of the agency’s records and technology departments. It also recommends a legislative task force to simplify the state’s complicated sentencing system.
“The software problem was the easy fix,” O’Ban said in a written statement announcing the bill’s passage through committee. “The greater challenge is in changing the agency culture. We need to make sure that public safety comes first.”
The governor’s office agrees with “some limited portions” of SB 5294 but opposes it overall, according to Tara Lee, spokeswoman for Inslee.
The GOP bill is “far too broad and there are better ways to approach a review of the Sentencing Reform Act,” Lee wrote in an email.
After his investigation, Inslee demoted several officials, and as the saga played out several state workers connected to the early releases resigned.
In his 2017-19 proposed budget, the governor requested funding 25 more DOC records staffers, to make sure offenders are being held or supervised for the correct amount of time. That proposal also provides money for a review Washington’s sentencing structures, Lee wrote.
Inslee’s office is also hoping for the passage of other DOC-related bills, including HB 1680, a proposal to get around the sometimes confusing and inaccurate sentencing forms sent by counties to the DOC, to make sure offenders are serving the correct amount of time, according to Lee.