The report from the Washington Attorney General’s Office concluded that high-level agency officials, such as then-Attorney General Rob McKenna, weren’t aware of the advice given to the state Department of Corrections in December 2012.
OLYMPIA — Advice from a staffer in the state Attorney General’s Office regarding the mistaken early release of prisoners put the public in jeopardy and potentially raised the state’s liability, according to Attorney General Bob Ferguson.
Ferguson’s remarks were included Thursday with the release of a report examining his office’s role in the long-running sentence-calculation problem at the state Department of Corrections (DOC).
When the state learned in December 2012 that a software-programming problem was allowing prisoners out early, an assistant attorney general, Ronda Larson, advised corrections staff not to manually recalculate sentences to stop more early releases.
Ferguson, elected in November 2012, had not yet taken office.
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“By advising the client that it was ‘reasonable’ to not immediately correct this violation of the law, the advice jeopardized public safety and potentially increased liability for the state,” Ferguson wrote in a cover letter accompanying the report.
Staffers handling corrections issues are supposed to alert their supervisors about significant legal matters, according to the report. But, “While Ms. Larson understood this expectation, she did not recognize the significance of the early release error and failed to notify her division chief.”
The report concluded that high-level agency officials were not aware of the advice given in December 2012.
“No one in senior agency leadership, including then-Attorney General Rob McKenna, was aware of the problem or the provision of the advice,” Ferguson wrote.
McKenna, in an interview late last year, said that if top officials had known of the situation, “we would have countermanded her advice.”
Larson resigned two months ago.
The report included interviews with 19 current and former state employees and a review of more than 20,000 emails.
It found no communication between the Attorney General’s Office and DOC regarding the problem between Feb. 7, 2013, and December 2015, when the issue was publicly announced.
The attorney general’s review is the latest effort to scrutinize the long-running miscalculation of prison sentences, which since 2002 may have allowed as many as 2,800 inmates to be freed early.
An investigative report commissioned by Gov Jay Inslee concluded that flawed advice, ignored emails and lapses in communication allowed the state to continue releasing prisoners early for years after the problem was discovered in 2012.
And a legislative investigation led by a pair of GOP state senators has focused on the management style of former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, who led DOC from July 2011 to October 2015
After a crime victim’s family notified DOC in December 2012 that a prisoner was to be released early, DOC found a wider problem stretching back to 2002, and linked it to software programming.
Shortly after the problem became known, Larson in an email advised a DOC staffer “It would be reasonable to not manually fix the hundreds of sentences … and instead wait for the reprogramming” of the software.
Larson in her email acknowledged that not doing the manual recounts would “result in offenders being released earlier than the law allows for the time being.” But considering the problem began 2002, “a few more months is not going to make that much difference …” Larson wrote.
But the software reprogramming didn’t take a few months. It was delayed 16 times and not made until this year, after Inslee learned of the problem and announced it.
The governorhas described the decision not to manually calculate sentences as “mind-boggling.”
Two people are known to have been killed by offenders who should have still been in prison, officials have said. Other inmates freed early were trying to move forward with their lives but were rounded up after the problem was publicly announced in December 2015.
In his letter, Ferguson wrote he would adopt the one recommendation by Inslee’s investigation pertaining to the Attorney General’s Office. That suggestion urged advice to DOC by assistant attorney generals be subject to review and approval by supervisors.
“Although this is consistent with our general practice, I have directed my team to implement revised protocols to formalize” the recommendation, Ferguson wrote.
Ferguson’s office also will develop a training program for employees on providing advice to clients.