A bill to increase oversight of Washington’s prisons and make sure offenders’ sentences are correct missed a key deadline this week to pass. But state lawmakers say there’s still a chance it can pass this year.
OLYMPIA — Washington state House lawmakers couldn’t scrounge up the votes this week to approve a bill intended to increase oversight of prisons and make sure offenders’ sentences are correct.
SB 5294 contains a combination of Democratic and Republican priorities, both of which were prompted by a series of miscalculations and errors to offender sentences.
Though it passed unanimously out of the Senate in March, SB 5294 stumbled this week in the House.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said there were enough disagreements with the bill’s various parts that it lost both Republican and Democratic votes.
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“There were a number of amendments that were done in Appropriations Committee that caused some Republicans to peel off,” Sullivan said Thursday. “Without those amendments, we lost some Democrats.”
Efforts to get lawmakers back on board by a key cutoff date for most bills — 5 p.m. on Wednesday — were unsuccessful.
“We just didn’t quite get there, but I do think there’s a pathway,” said Sullivan. “We’re pretty close, we just kind of ran out of time.”
Since part of the bill spends state money, the proposal can be considered necessary for the budget — meaning it’s not necessarily dead for the year.
Sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the bill seeks to make the state Department of Corrections (DOC) more accountable in the wake of Washington’s long-running mistaken early release of prisoners.
Between 2002 and 2015, a miscalculation of sentences freed up to 2,700 prisoners early, according to DOC estimates. Two people in 2015 were killed by offenders who should still have been in prison, officials have said.
In 2012, the concerned family of a victim alerted DOC to the issue. But the agency — taking the advice of an assistant attorney general — decided not to manually check sentences to make sure prisoners were serving their correct time.
Meanwhile, a software-programming fix for the calculation errors was delayed 16 times — and wasn’t put in place until early 2016, after the issue became public.
Among other things, the version of Padden’s bill that passed out of the House Appropriations Committee would create an independent ombuds office that could investigate complaints against DOC by offenders, family members and others.
Such investigations could explore issues of alleged neglect or abuse, and challenges to DOC actions and procedures.
The bill also includes a proposal by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, to make sure offenders are being held in prison and on community supervision for the correct lengths of time.
Court sentencing documents that are transmitted to DOC have been found to have mathematical errors, illegible handwriting, or sentences that don’t follow state law.
Complicating things are Washington’s complex sentencing statutes, and the fact that many counties have their own court sentencing documents — meaning DOC staffers don’t deal with a standardized form.
Right now, when corrections staffers have questions about an offender’s sentence handed down by the courts, they ask county prosecutors for clarification.
But corrections staffers often don’t hear back from the counties — which leaves DOC trying to interpret what the judicial system wants.
That led DOC’s acting secretary last year to acknowledge that there are offenders in custody “that probably have disputable release dates.”
Goodman earlier this year sponsored a bill that offered a simple fix.
That proposal — which has been rolled into SB 5294 — would create a work sheet that includes the basic factors needed to correctly calculate a sentence.
The courts would fill out the work sheet and send it to DOC, along with their own sentencing forms. That should provide an easier — and more standard — way for corrections staffers to determine sentences.
Rachael Seevers, staff attorney for Disability Rights Washington, which has been advocating for the ombuds proposal, said she hopes and expects the bill to eventually get through this year.
“”There’s a big coalition behind that bill this year,” said Seevers, who added that the it would bring “real, meaningful oversight” to Washington’s corrections system.