Gov. Jay Inslee said has been advised to wait to hold people accountable for the early release of prisoners until after an investigation is complete.
OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday he has “some preliminary observations” about who may be responsible for the state failing since 2012 to fix a prison-sentencing error that released up to 3,200 prisoners early.
But the governor said he will wait to take action to hold those accountable until an independent investigation is complete.
“The investigators have advised me not to take personnel-accountability actions until they have done their work, so that it does not interfere with this investigation,” Inslee said at the annual Associated Press Legislative Preview forum.
Inslee has asked two former federal prosecutors to investigate how the mistake came about and was allowed to continue even after the Department of Corrections (DOC) knew about it.
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Inslee and DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke announced Dec. 22 that an error in calculating prison sentences resulted in the early releases of inmates going back to 2002. Although a crime victim’s family alerted corrections-department staff in 2012 to one early release, and staff identified a software problem then, the scheduled software fix was delayed 16 times and never made. A fix had been scheduled for this week, and is now set for next week, Inslee said, as testing continues.
Early DOC estimates show prisons allowed offenders out an average 55 days before they were supposed to be released.
As soon as he learned of the problem, Inslee said Thursday, he “blew the whistle on this, virtually immediately,” and ordered a stop to the release of affected prisoners until hand calculations were made on their sentences. The prisoners involved have committed serious crimes, receiving sentence “enhancements,” or extra time, because of certain circumstances of the crime, such as using a gun.
An email released by DOC last week included advice from an assistant attorney general who in 2012 advised that the problem was not urgent enough to require extra resources to recalculate prison sentences by hand and stop early releases at that time.
In that email, Assistant Attorney General Ronda Larson instead advised a corrections staffer that the agency should begin the process of reprogramming the computer system.
Inslee at the forum criticized staff at both DOC and the Attorney General’s Office for the decision at that point not to hand-calculate sentences.
“That was pretty obvious to me that that had to be done,” Inslee said. “Why it was not obvious to DOC officials, why it was not obvious to assistant attorney generals, is mind-boggling.”
The governor also spoke of his conversations with the families of Lindsay Hill, a 35-year-old mother of two, and 17-year-old Ceasar Medina. Both Hill and Medina died in 2015 in situations allegedly connected to two different prisoners who had been released and should have still been in prison.
“I have tremendous admiration for their grace under these difficult circumstances,” said the governor.
At the forum, Inslee also said he saw former DOC Secretary Bernie Warner recently at a social event — but did not speak to Warner about the prison-sentencing error. The investigation is expected to be completed within the next couple months.
Inslee said he didn’t talk to Warner at the social gathering because the governor didn’t want influence the independent investigation.
Warner, who oversaw the department from July 2011 to October of last year, has declined to comment on the problem to The Seattle Times, but said he would cooperate with the investigation. Warner left to take a job at a private corrections and job-training company in Utah.
Leading state lawmakers attending the forum Thursday said legislative hearings would be held focusing on the error. The Senate Law and Justice Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Monday, the first day of the legislative session, and Pacholke is scheduled to testify.
On Jan. 15, the House General Government & Information Technology Committee is scheduled to hold a work session about short- and long-term plans to address the programming error.
At the forum, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, questioned Inslee’s appointment of the two investigators to lead the review.
“Letting the governor choose his own people to be independent, I think is questionable,” Schoesler said.
Inslee shrugged off that concern. The governor noted the investigators — Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone of Seattle-based law firm Yarmuth Wilsdon — are former federal prosecutors.
“I suspect while they were prosecuting crimes … my Republican friends would not have been questioning their credibility,” said Inslee.