A Senate hearing in Olympia shed little light on why state employees for years failed to stop the mistaken early release of prisoners. But one figure in the probe, Assistant Attorney General Ronda Larson, expressed regret, saying, “I wasn’t cognizant of the extent of the problem.”
OLYMPIA — Four witnesses and a couple hours later, the legislative committee investigating the state’s mistaken early release of prisoners Monday had covered a lot of ground.
There were discussions about the complexities of calculating prison sentences, even detailed discussions about staffing levels for the state Department of Corrections (DOC) information technology, or IT, team.
Yet the most expansive public testimony so far about the mistake that allowed potentially thousands of inmates to leave prison early shed little light on key questions: After the problem’s discovery in December 2012, why did the needed software-programming fix continually get pushed back?
And who was responsible for allowing the delays to fester for years?
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“I don’t know why,” said Wendy Stigall, a DOC records administrator appearing before the Senate Law and Justice Committee. Stigall in late 2012 submitted an IT work request for a programming fix, and last November she told the agency’s new chief information officer about the problem.
At the witness table with Stigall was Sue Schuler, a staffer in DOC’s IT department. The fix had been given a high priority to be implemented, Schuler said, but later got downgraded. Could she explain, asked a lawmaker, why the priority was lowered?
“I can’t,” said Schuler, adding that she got an email from a superior saying certain types of fixes would receive a lower priority.
The legislative investigation, led by Republican state senators, is looking into a sentencing miscalculation error that, between 2002 and 2015, allowed offenders with enhanced sentences to be released before serving their full time in prison.
The deaths of two people in 2015 have been linked to offenders who should have been still serving sentences, officials have said, and two former inmates have been charged. DOC has rounded up other offenders — including those trying to rebuild their lives — to serve the remainder of their sentences.
The problem was not corrected until this year — after Gov. Jay Inslee announced in December that he had just learned of the problem, and that potentially thousands of prisoners were released too early over more than a decade.
Inslee report expected
During the hearing, DOC staffers and another witness, Ronda Larson, told lawmakers they had expected the software-programming fix to be in place months after it had been called for in late 2012.
Larson, the assistant attorney general who advised corrections staff in 2012 not to do sentence recalculations by hand to stop prisoners from being released early, recently announced her resignation.
She told lawmakers she regretted advising the staff to wait for the programming fix, rather than hand-calculating sentences.
“I regret that now … but at the time, I wasn’t cognizant of the extent of the problem,” said Larson.
The witnesses called to speak Monday afternoon also talked about staff shortages and turnover as a challenge to DOC’s IT department.
But Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, questioned Monday’s hearing, citing the investigation commissioned by Inslee. That investigation — which Inslee and DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke announced publicly in December when revealing the problem — wrapped up Monday morning.
Inslee was to be briefed on the report Monday evening and will confer this week with DOC leadership on what actions to take.
If lawmakers had waited until the release of the governor’s report, they could have asked more informed questions, said Pedersen, ranking Democrat on the committee.
“I’m not sure what we’re doing here,” said Pedersen, adding that the committee’s Democrats were only told on Saturday which witnesses would be appearing.
But after Monday’s hearing, Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley and chairman of the committee, pointed out that the session shined a light on some of those involved with the problem.
“Number one, the public got to see what’s going on,” said Padden.
At a news briefing earlier in the day, state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, said there was “some indication,” that former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner knew of the prisoner-release problem.
Warner, who resigned in 2014, told The Seattle Times last month he did not know of the problem until two months ago.
O’Ban was referring to a meeting of DOC records staff from around the state that Warner attended toward the end of summer in 2013 and where the issue came up.
But speaking before the committee on Monday, Stigall said Warner had been there only to make introductory remarks and did not stay for the meeting.
In January, Pacholke said that after its discovery in 2012, the issue “was passed up at least as high as an assistant secretary,” who reported directly to Warner. Pacholke, in the secretary’s job for less than half a year, announced his resignation this month with an email that accused Padden of “blaming and shaming” the agency.
Denise Doty, the assistant secretary Pacholke referred to, left DOC for another agency in 2015. Doty resigned from her position there last week.
The committee hopes at some point to talk with Warner, who now lives in Utah, O’Ban said Monday. Padden said more witnesses will be called at the next hearing, scheduled for Thursday.
Inslee and Pacholke have said they did not know of the prisoner-release problem until mid-December 2015. Inslee ordered the investigation, but Senate Republicans decided to run a parallel inquiry, saying the one ordered by the governor could not be viewed as independent-minded.
O’Ban and Padden on Monday rejected any notion that Republicans were trying to embarrass the Democratic governor as he seeks election this year to a second term.
If lawmakers reached the same conclusion as the governor’s investigation, O’Ban said, it would help the public’s confidence.
The programming fix to correct the sentencing calculations — and the repeated delays — came after a family member of a victim in 2012 notified DOC that a particular offender was mistakenly going to be released early.
The family member, Matthew Mirante, also testified Monday, telling lawmakers it wasn’t hard for him to do the calculation.
It took about five minutes, he said, to figure out that the state was going to prematurely release the person who had stabbed his son.
“I did it all by myself, by hand,” he said.
A recent DOC review of more than 1,500 potentially affected inmates released since December 2011 showed three-quarters of them were mistakenly released early. If that projection holds, about 2,800 offenders since 2002 might have been freed before their correct release dates.