The process of rounding up Washington state inmates released too early is fraught with complications and concerns — not only for crime victims seeking justice, but for offenders trying to move on.
The phone call came midway through her shift as a waitress at a roadside casino. Three armed officers had shown up at her mother’s Issaquah home, looking for Rachel Patterson. Now, a state corrections officer was telling her to surrender.
“He explained we miscalculated your time and basically told me if I don’t turn myself in immediately, I would be in more trouble,” Patterson said.
For three months, Patterson, 29, had been free; a three-year prison sentence for felony assault was behind her. And she’d been doing well, she said: She landed a job, passed all drug tests, hadn’t committed any new crimes.
Then came the call, and within a few hours, Patterson was wearing a red jail uniform and under a “no-bail hold.” A few days later, she was telling her story to a reporter through thick security glass at the King County Jail.
Most Read Local Stories
- These Seattle-area businesses got called out the most for alleged COVID-19 violations
- West Seattle motorists can't catch a break. Now First Avenue South Bridge needs urgent repairs. VIEW
- 'Wretched human being' for president: How the Spokane paper's bizarre plug for Trump revealed a hard truth
- Coronavirus daily news updates, October 29: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world VIEW
- Coronavirus daily news updates, October 30: What to know today about COVID-19 in the Seattle area, Washington state and the world VIEW
“They didn’t fingerprint me, gave me no paperwork, nothing,” Patterson said last week of her return to state custody. “Now I’m sitting here and no one’s answering my questions. They haven’t told me where I’m going, or how long I’ll be in for.”
For the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC), fixing a longstanding sentencing-calculation error that officials say allowed as many as 3,200 inmates to walk out of prison too early since 2002 has prompted a scramble to round up those mistakenly released. It’s a process fraught with complications and concerns not only for crime victims seeking justice, but for offenders trying to move on.
Last month, Gov. Jay Inslee and DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke publicly revealed that incorrectly programmed computer software for years had been churning out miscalculated early-release dates for offenders sentenced to extra prison time due to violent circumstances related to their crimes.
At least two DOC employees became aware of the problem in late 2012,but an assistant attorney general advised against an urgent review. Instead, the error persisted for three years while a requested software fix was delayed time and again for reasons yet to be explained. Inslee said Thursday a fix is being tested now.
Two separate investigations are under way.
With last month’s public mea culpa, DOC launched a case-by-case review to identify offenders let go too soon and to return some to custody. It’s being conducted in reverse chronological order to deal first with the most recent releases.
The roundup will undoubtedly cause upheavals in the lives of former prisoners who have been trying to fit back into society, officials acknowledge.
“If you believe you’ve done your time and you’re upholding the law and trying to get on with your life and then uniformed officers are suddenly knocking on your door, that is a startling and disconcerting issue,” said Anmarie Aylward, the DOC assistant secretary overseeing the agency’s search for those released early.
DOC is trying to minimize impacts, Aylward added.
“But the bottom line is, we have to take action to protect the public as quickly as possible,” she said. “That’s our No. 1 priority.”
“We need to apprehend you”
So far, prison officials have reviewed more than 500 cases dating back to December 2011. As of Thursday, the agency had taken more than 60 inmates back into custody and cleared more than 400 others who were released early but have stayed out of trouble, DOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay said.
To try to assure accuracy, three staffers are doing three separate, manual recalculations of each inmate’s release date. Cases of those identified as “still owing time” then land on Aylward’s desk for final review and her approval of a plan to apprehend them.
Released inmates who have been determined to owe time mostly fall into three camps, Aylward said: those released under community supervision who have abided by release conditions; those under supervision who haven’t followed their release terms; and those released without conditions whose cases already were closed.
For the first group, officials generally have been “calling them into the office and telling them to turn themselves in,” Aylward said.
For inmates in the other groups, the DOC is issuing warrants and working with local, state or federal law enforcement to re-apprehend them, Aylward said.
The warrants are technically “escape warrants” that don’t require a judge’s order, she said. While “there’s no intention on our part of prosecuting an escape,” the warrants can go nationwide and allow for extradition from other states, she said.
Once apprehended, offenders do not get a due-process hearing or legal counsel, Aylward said.
“These (cases) have already been adjudicated,” she said. “You’re under our jurisdiction and we need to apprehend you.”
Officials generally have sought to apprehend an inmate before determining where he or she would serve out an incomplete sentence. Some may be eligible for work release or furloughs, but most likely will be incarcerated, Aylward said.
Figuring out such details can take several days, she said, leaving offenders and their families in limbo.
“The commitment we’ve made is trying to get the person into the least restrictive facility as possible,” Aylward said.
But the process can be disruptive.
Miranda Fontenot, whose fiancé, James Louis, was taken into custody Monday when he checked in with his community corrections officer, said she’s “outraged” by his unannounced arrest.
“We weren’t aware of any type of miscalculation,” said Fontenot, who had been waiting for Louis in the car with the couple’s toddler. “They just put him in handcuffs out of the blue.”
Released in February 2012, about four months early, from his sentence for a gun-related robbery, Louis applied for nearly 200 jobs before getting one at a Seattle hotel, Fontenot said.
“He’s going to lose his job, and we depend on him,” she said.
Amanda Lee, who works for the nonprofit Washington Defender Association, said she’s concerned the roundup may prove more damaging than good, especially for those “who’ve been out for quite a long time.”
“They’ve re-established themselves into the community, they’ve got jobs and families that depend on them,” Lee said. “The harm done could be extraordinary for some of these folks, and the benefit could be nonexistent.”
Corrections officials plan to review all cases dating to 2002. But the further back they look, officials say, the less likely an offender may have to return to custody.
“It becomes sort of weighing how long they’ve been released versus how much action we can really take,” Barclay said.
Inmates released erroneously who’ve been good citizens while out for long periods must receive day-for-day credit, under a 2003 court ruling. They’ll be cleared from any remaining time, Barclay said.
They “knock you back down”
The state’s review shows four inmates released early have been charged with or convicted of new crimes. Two are accused of killing people. But most reviewed cases haven’t uncovered links to new offenses.
All inmates released early have been convicted of serious crimes. Their sentences included “enhancements,” or extra prison time on top of a base sentence, for using a gun or other deadly weapons, or having a sexual motivation.
Enhancement time isn’t supposed to be reduced. Yet, after a 2002 court ruling, DOC’s mistakenly coded software applied credit to the enhancements for time inmates spent in jail before heading to prison.
The software mistake also applied too much time-off credit for good behavior to inmates’ base sentences above what’s legally allowed.
Barclay and the governor’s office this week clarified details about how the miscalculations were made on both base sentences and enhancements.
On average, inmates affected by the mistake were released 55 days early, according to initial estimates.
Patterson got two years of “deadly weapon” enhancements as part of a three-year sentence for assaulting two teenagers with a knife and baton in 2013. Her boyfriend, a man with previous felony convictions whom she claimed abused her, received eight years for his part in the attack.
Patterson served about 18 months in the Snohomish County Jail while waiting to testify against her boyfriend. She was transferred in March to the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Purdy, where she said a DOC employee went over her remaining sentence with her. Patterson said the staffer told her she’d be out in about six months — almost a year early.
“I asked, are you sure? I’ve got two enhancements, 24 months. I have to do hard time on that,” she said she told him. “ I asked him like three or four times, and he got annoyed and was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m sure.’ ”
The corrections employee did the calculation by hand, not computer, Patterson said. In late September, after finishing work release, Patterson said she didn’t think twice about being released without conditions.
“As far as they told me,” she said, “I was done.”
Likewise, David Jennings, an offender let go at least seven months early and returned to custody last week, said he “triple-checked” his sentence with corrections staff before his release in August.
Aylward said DOC staff likely didn’t manually calculate their sentences, but went over the computer’s calculations put on paper with each offender.
Because Washington has dozens of sentencing structures — many of which can apply to any one inmate — such computations are incredibly complex to do by hand, she said.
But if that’s the case, Patterson and others wonder how they can trust DOC’s latest calculations. The new official release date for Patterson is March 26. Last weekend, she was placed in a work-release program in Everett that allows her to keep her job.
“They say they want you to rehabilitate yourself, but when you’re back on your feet, they come and knock you back down and take it all away again,” Patterson said.
Such feelings of mistrust are understandable, Aylward said, but the state insists recalculated sentences are now accurate and verified by multiple independent checks.
“We just have to earn that trust back by being as open and transparent as possible,” Alwyard said.