Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday the Washington Department of Corrections has been making mistakes in calculating sentences since 2002, resulting in thousands of inmates leaving prison early. Corrections officials learned of a problem in 2012.
OLYMPIA — For three years, state Department of Corrections staff knew a software-coding error was miscalculating prison sentences and allowing inmates to be released early. On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee gave the damning tally: up to 3,200 prisoners set free too soon since 2002.
The problem stemmed from “good time” credits applied to certain prison sentences, and was discovered, according to the Corrections Department, only after a victim’s family alerted officials in 2012 that they might be planning to release an offender too early. Once the broader problem was discovered, a scheduled software fix got caught up in repeated IT delays, yet to be explained.
“That this problem was allowed to continue to exist for 13 years is deeply disappointing,” Inslee said. “It is totally unacceptable, and frankly it is maddening.”
Inslee said his office learned of the problem, which a Department of Corrections (DOC) analysis said affected about 3 percent of all releases, on Dec. 16. Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, who took over the department in October, said he learned of the early releases the previous day.
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Early estimates indicate the offenders were released from prison an average 55 days before their correct release dates, according to Inslee’s general counsel, Nicholas Brown.
At a news conference Tuesday, Inslee — appearing with Brown and Pacholke — announced a series of actions to remedy the long-running problem:
• A software fix for the sentencing calculations is to be implemented early next month.
• The governor ordered the DOC to halt all releases of prisoners whose sentences could have been affected until a hand calculation is done to ensure offenders are being released on the correct date.
• The state has retained two former federal prosecutors — Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone of Seattle-based law firm Yarmuth Wilsdon — to conduct an independent investigation.
“These were serious errors with serious implications,” Inslee said. “When I learned of this I ordered DOC to fix this, fix it fast, and fix it right.”
Inslee said the state is working to locate offenders released early who need to complete their sentences. Five have been returned to prison, according to Brown.
Along with concerns about public safety, one question loomed over Tuesday’s developments: Why wasn’t the problem solved in 2012, when it was first discovered?
Between December 2012 and this month, the software fix “was repeatedly delayed,” according to a DOC timeline of events.
The delays occurred despite the fact a DOC worker who filed the service request labeled the fix as time sensitive and “ASAP.”
Typically, IT fixes are put into a queue according to priority, said Brown. But, “What we know, I think, at a bare minimum, is the proper prioritization did not occur,” he said.
Corrections officials at that time chose not to undertake a broad hand calculation of sentences that may have been affected, according to Brown.
In an interview Tuesday, DOC spokesman Andrew Garber said a detailed account of who knew what and when after the problem was discovered would await the results of the investigation.
Former DOC Secretary Bernie Warner, who headed the department from July 2011 to October of this year, declined in an email Wednesday to answer questions about the early-release issue but pledged to cooperate in the investigation.
“Obviously, any early release of an inmate from prison to the community is a serious public safety issue and I share the concerns of the Governor, DOC Secretary Pacholke, victims groups and other important law enforcement stakeholders,” Warner wrote. “At this point, I do not intend to grant interviews with the media, so as to not interfere with the deliberate investigation the Governor has ordered. I do intend to fully cooperate with those leading the investigation process.”
The math mistake
Inmates earn “good time” for good behavior, an incentive program that can reduce their sentences by up to a third. It can be earned for good conduct, being free of infractions and participating in work and education programs.
Before a 2002 state Supreme Court decision, the state Department of Corrections gave offenders credit for good behavior only in state prisons, not for the time they initially spent in county jails.
When the court ruled that must change, the state planned a software correction to accurately calculate good time for certain offenders, but it didn’t work.
Those offenders had received sentences that included extra time, known as “enhancements” for crimes committed under certain circumstances. The sentencing enhancements associated with the calculation error, according to DOC, are firearm enhancement, sex-offense enhancement, and deadly-weapon enhancement.
Those add extra 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.
But good time is to be applied only to the regular part of the sentence — not the enhancement.
The software coding mistakenly applied good-time credits to both, giving too much good time to offenders for the period spent in jail.
After a victim’s family alerted the DOC about the release of a certain convict, the department conducted a hand-calculation of that prisoner’s sentence and kept him in prison for the appropriate time, according to Brown. Corrections officials also consulted with legal counsel and scheduled a programming fix for the overall problem — but the fix was never made.
“For reasons we still don’t yet fully understand, that fix never happened,” Brown said. “A computer update was scheduled, postponed and rescheduled numerous times following the discovery of this problem in 2012.”
On Dec. 27 of that year, according to the DOC timeline, Wendy Stigall, the records program administrator, filed a service request to the agency’s IT department to make a fix.
“In the section asking if it was a time sensitive problem, she said yes,” according to the timeline, adding Stigall said it needed to be a priority and done “ASAP.”
The timeline then sums up the three years since in one line: “December 2012 to December 2015: The coding fix was repeatedly delayed.”
Early last month, DOC’s newly hired chief information officer, Ira Feuer, became aware of the problem after meeting with Stigall, according to the DOC timeline.
By then, the IT division had been working to address the problem again for a couple of months. Feuer was told the coding developer needed to make the change had been on leave between February and September.
Before becoming Corrections secretary, Pacholke was named deputy secretary in 2014. In all, he has more than 32 years with the agency. He began his career as a corrections officer, and as deputy secretary oversaw divisions including community corrections, health care and re-entry services.
Pacholke said the DOC welcomed the investigation into the lapse and “the agency should be held accountable for this breach.”
“I’ve apologized to the governor personally on behalf of the Department of Corrections for this 13-year error,” said Pacholke. “I want to offer that same apology to the public. It’s an unforgivable error.”
New crimes committed?
Many prisoners released early may not wind up being re-incarcerated, according to Brown. The law requires the state to give day-for-day credit in most cases to a prisoner who has been released early and hasn’t been found to break any laws since, he said.
The state does not have a complete list of names of those released early, according to Brown. In one case, the error shaved 600 days off a prisoner’s sentence — but that prisoner is still incarcerated, Brown said.
As for whether inmates released may have committed new crimes, “we don’t have the answer to that,” Brown said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, Victim Support Services, a statewide crime-victims’ advocacy group, hadn’t heard from any of its clients about the inmate-release mistake, said Executive Director Marge Fairweather.
“One thing I would anticipate for someone who has been affected by this, they may feel that justice hasn’t been served,” Fairweather said. “It also could manifest in crime victims not trusting the justice system.’
The private nonprofit group based in Everett has provided a range of services, such as counseling and courtroom support, for individuals and families victimized by homicide, assault, robbery and other crimes since 1975, Fairweather said. The organization has no political agenda, but if clients should ask it to raise concerns to state officials about the early-release problem, it will, she said.
Crime victims across Washington who have concerns can call the organization’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-346-7555, Fairweather said.