Significant errors in tracking prisoner sentences should be promptly disclosed by the state of Washington, regardless of whether there's a safety risk.
Washington state’s repeated struggles to accurately track prisoner sentences is disgraceful.
On Monday the Times reported that at least a dozen inmates were released at the wrong time because of a software glitch, prompting a laborious manual review of potentially 3,500 cases. And the public was not informed for months.
This comes after the state was rocked by revelations in December 2015 that the Department of Corrections miscalculated sentences because of software and management problems for years, releasing more than 3,000 inmates too soon. Two of them killed people when they should still have been in prison.
Gov. Jay Inslee called the 2015 scandal “totally unacceptable” and announced a raft of fixes. The corrections secretary resigned, the Legislature investigated and an ombudsman was hired.
Now we have another glitch, on a much smaller scale.
Inslee’s office and the DOC said the latest errors were found because of heightened diligence and reviews after the 2015 debacle, but the software program is outdated and keeping track of sentencing is complex.
Sentencing reform is in the works. Last year the Legislature funded a broad review of whether the 1982 reforms are working and how the system can be further simplified. State Rep. Roger Goodman, chair of the House Committee on Public Safety, is calling for a legislative task force to suggest ways to reduce errors, improve effectiveness and promote public safety.
This work should recommend ways to improve systems that the state, counties, courts and community-supervision programs use to share sentencing details and changes. They must improve coordination and increase efficiency.
The state also has to stop buying custom software that’s so difficult to manage, the public pays a fortune in maintenance costs. DOC is paying the developer of its 10-year-old tracking system $1.6 million a year to keep working on it.
Washingtonians build and run the world’s most advanced systems for keeping track of things, with software keeping tabs on billions of items and continuously sharing information with different systems, with minimal human intervention. Yet the state itself, which oversees 38,000 criminals in prison and community supervision programs, just assigned nearly 50 workers to sift through paperwork to be sure information in its sentencing system is correct.
No system is perfect, of course, and mistakes happen. The DOC’s explanation this time is reasonable — sentencing changes add complexity, staffers found the problem and are fixing it.
Even so, the state should have promptly announced the latest errors as part of its ongoing effort to restore trust in the DOC’s sentence tracking.
What made the 2015 situation especially bad was that DOC knew for years there were flaws in its system but did not disclose them.
The latest glitch became public knowledge a few months after it was discovered. That’s an improvement but still too much of a delay. Even though it may not have resulted in a community threat, it involved at least a dozen offenders and reviews of nearly 10 percent of sentences overseen by the department.
It’s good the DOC was diligent and caught the latest glitch before major harm occurred. Lawmakers are right to continue pursuing sentence reform.
In the meantime, errors involving more than a few offenders should be disclosed immediately to keep the public informed.