After it was discovered in 2012 that some prisoners were being released by mistake, the state Attorney General’s office advised Department of Corrections staff not to undertake hand calculations to stop the early release of other inmates.

Share story

OLYMPIA — The state Attorney General’s Office knew in 2012 that hundreds of prisoners were being released early by mistake, but advised that the problem was not urgent enough to require extra staff to accurately recalculate prison sentences.

Gov. Jay Inslee and state Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Dan Pacholke announced last week that since 2002, up to 3,200 prisoners have been released early due to a miscalculation of their sentences.

The DOC became aware of the problem in 2012 and at the time prepared a software fix.

But in a Dec. 7, 2012, email to DOC records-program administrator Wendy Stigall, Assistant Attorney General Ronda Larson wrote the problem was “not so urgent” as to require Corrections staff to recalculate sentences and stop more inmates from being freed early.

In the email, Larson wrote, “It would be reasonable to not manually fix the hundreds of sentences … and instead wait for the reprogramming” of the software.

Doing so would “result in offenders being released earlier than the law allows for the time being,” she wrote. But, given that the problem had been occurring for a decade, “a few more months is not going to make that much difference …” Larson wrote.

“Furthermore, this is something that the DOC has identified internally, rather than something that is being forced upon it by an outside entity such as the court,” Larson added. “It is therefore not so urgent as to require the large input of personnel resources to do hand calculations of hundreds of sentences.”

The family of a victim brought the problem to DOC’s attention in 2012 after figuring out that the offender would be released before the correct date.

Larson in her email recommended the agency do a hand calculation for that offender and the DOC “start the long process of reprogramming [the computer system] for everyone else.”

But, “I don’t believe it is necessary, from a risk-management perspective, to do hand calculations now” for all prisoners affected, she wrote.

The intended software fix was delayed 16 times and was never made, for reasons that haven’t been publicly explained by DOC officials.

Larson’s email was released Wednesday evening by the DOC in response to public-records requests by The Seattle Times and other news organizations. It was flagged “Attorney-Client Privileged Communication.”

In a statement Wednesday evening, Attorney General Bob Ferguson — who was not in that post in 2012 — called the advice “deeply flawed” and said it “failed to emphasize the urgency of addressing this critical issue.”

Rob McKenna was in his last month as attorney general when Larson sent the email. McKenna did not immediately respond to a phone call or an email requesting comment Wednesday night.

Ferguson said Wednesday he has ordered a “thorough review of the internal processes” that produced the advice. He said his office also will review records “for any other relevant legal advice on this matter, dating back to 2002.”

Since Inslee and Pacholke announced the inmate releases last week, DOC employees have been manually calculating sentences for prisoners about to be freed, and working to find prisoners already out who need to be returned to custody to serve out their sentences.

Those released early had received sentences that included extra time, known as “enhancements,” for crimes committed under certain circumstances, such as with a gun. Enhancements add prison time: for example, an additional five years per charge for using a firearm, or an extra two years for using another type of deadly weapon.

The calculation mistake gave inmates credit for “good time” on the enhancement part of their sentences. But good time, for good behavior or taking part in work and education programs while in custody, is to be applied only to the regular part of the sentence — not the enhancement.

Also Wednesday, the DOC announced the names of 24 offenders mistakenly set free who now have been rounded up.

Most of the offenders had been serving time for different types of assault, burglary and robbery charges, according to information posted on a DOC website. One was serving time for charges related to the manufacture and possession of drugs.

Most offenders released early over the years will not have to return to prison.

In most cases, the state gives day-for-day credit to a prisoner released early who hasn’t been found to have broken any laws since being freed.

Of the names released Wednesday, all but one of the offenders had sentence enhancements related to firearms or a deadly weapon.

Jeremy Barclay, communications director for the DOC, said the agency has partnered with local law-enforcement agencies around the state to return offenders to custody.

Most of the offenders named Wednesday were mistakenly released this year between September and November.

A handful were let out over the summer and one offender was set free in March.

The newly named offenders are in addition to a half-dozen previously announced to be in custody.

One of those, Robert T. Jackson, has been charged with vehicular homicide in connection with the death of Lindsay Hill in a crash that occurred last month while Jackson should still have been in prison, according to DOC.

Hill’s family Wednesday released a statement saying they were “deeply saddened to learn about the early release errors and our hearts go out to all that have been affected.”

“Our family is going through an enormous amount of pain because of the unnecessary loss of our daughter, sister and mother of two young boys,” according to a statement released through Hill’s brother. “Lindsay was a kindhearted young woman who should still be alive today and nothing we can say or do will bring her back.”

Early estimates by the DOC indicate that offenders mistakenly released early were freed an average 55 days before their correct date.

Inslee and Pacholke have said they learned of the problem in mid-December. Inslee has ordered an independent investigation led by two former federal prosecutors.