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Will Washington State’s Corrections Software Error Turn Up More Tragedies?

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Connecting state and local government leaders

“I’m very concerned about what we will uncover as we move forward” in the investigation of the early release scandal, according to the Department of Corrections secretary.

Officials with the Washington state Department of Corrections are trying to figure out whether there are any more tragedies linked to the accidental early release of prisoners because of a 13-year software error first discovered, but not acted upon, three years ago.

Late last month, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office disclosed that about 3 percent of inmates—that’s about 3,200 incarcerated criminals—released since 2002 had been mistakenly let out of prison early because of an error in the software used to calculate the length of sentences.

“I’m very concerned about what we will uncover as we move forward and there's likely to be more crime that has been committed during that window,” Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke said, according to KUOW-FM. “I can't really speculate on the numbers, but it concerns me deeply about just the tragedy that is being produced based on early release.”  

Thus far, two tragedies have been tied to inmates mistakenly released early, the Department of Corrections has reported. One early-released inmate, Jeremiah Smith, has been charged in the murder of a 17-year-old boy during a robbery in Spokane that the department said happened when Smith should have still been in prison.

Another early-released inmate, Robert Jackson, has been charged in a Bellevue car crash that killed his girlfriend, Lindsay Hill. That crash happened when Jackson should have also still been in prison, according to the department.

“There is nothing that can right this horrible wrong," the governor said in a statement last month, referring to Hill’s death. “We must make sure nothing like this happens again.”

So why wasn’t the problem fixed when first reported?

According to KUOW, in a report from last week:

Washington’s former attorney general Rob McKenna is distancing himself from the prisoner-release scandal.

McKenna said he was not told three years ago when his office first learned that a software glitch had allowed thousands of inmates to leave prison early. He added that then-governor Christine Gregoire’s office also did not know. “None of us was informed by the Department of Corrections, or in my case, by the line attorney who was advising them.”

Documents released this week say that attorney had told the DOC not to take action and instead to wait for the software to be fixed. But it wasn't fixed—and no one stopped the early prison releases.

“If the attorney had elevated the issue to her supervisors and to senior staff and to me, we would have reached the opposite conclusion,” McKenna said.

The Department of Corrections is now calculating release dates by hand.

“I have a lot of questions about how and why this happened, and I understand that members of the public will have those same questions,” Inslee said in a statement issued on Dec, 22. “I expect the external investigation will bring the transparency and accountability we need to make sure this issue is resolved.”

Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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