Washington state let as many 3,200 felons walk out of prison early because of a software glitch that, once discovered, was left unfixed for three years.
The serious lapse in management at the Inslee Administration’s Department of Corrections is a breach of public trust. The extent of the damage caused over 13 years is not yet known because investigations are ongoing, and the corrections department has been circumspect with many details.
As of Tuesday, state officialshad brought 24 offenders back into custody.
At least two felons committed crimes during the time they should have been in prison. One is Robert Jackson, who was let out of prison at least four months early on a robbery charge. Prosecutors have charged him with vehicular homicide after Lindsay Hill, a 35-year-old passenger in his vehicle, died in a fatal crash on Nov. 11 in Bellevue. Jackson ran from the scene. Eight hours later, police found him in his apartment.
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On average, inmates walked out of jail 55 days early. Public safety is jeopardized when people ordered to serve extra time for crimes involving firearms and sexual offenses are released before they have served out their sentence.
An independent investigation commissioned by Gov. Jay Inslee must dig deeply into exactly who at DOC knew what and when, and determine why the problem was ignored for three years.
The problem started in 2002 after the state Supreme Court issued an opinion requiring DOC to give offenders credit for good behavior. However, such credit was not to apply to enhanced sentences for especially dangerous behavior.
According to the department’s own timeline, no one at the agency was aware of the problem until 2012, when a victim’s family raised an alarm that a felon had been released too early.
That December, a records staffer named Wendy Stigall flagged the software problem and requested a fix as soon as possible. The request was inexplicably delayed 16 times for three years.
When the investigation is complete, Inslee must hold not only individuals who failed to resolve the problem within DOC accountable but also those who contributed to a culture of inaction. Inslee appointee Bernie Warner was the agency secretary during the three years this problem was known. He recently left state service for the private sector, and has declined to answer media questions but said he will cooperate with the investigation.
Current Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke has been at the agency for 32 years and was Warner’s deputy secretary. He has some explaining to do as well.
This is a management debacle. Whether by incompetence or malfeasance, the DOC’s managers failed taxpayers by not ensuring convicted felons served their full sentences.
The governor also needs to explain how he'll ensure better management at the Department of Corrections. Lax oversight of the agency’s supposedly self-supporting prison labor program cost taxpayers at least $20 million, as detailed in a Seattle Times investigation last year. More recently, DOC officials fumbled the surprise out-of-state transfer of Green River serial killer Gary Ridgway.
Washingtonians need a competent prisons agency that keeps the public safe and uses taxpayer money wisely. Right now, the agency’s leadership appears to have lost its keys.