Investigators blame incompetence and a failure to set priorities for the mistaken early release of thousands of Washington prisoners.
The failure “was not intentional or malicious,” although it persisted for 13 years and for nearly three years after officials at the Department of Corrections and Attorney General’s Office knew about it, according to the investigation released Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee.
The computer programming error led to up to 3,300 prisoners being released early because they were mistakenly awarded too much time off their sentences for good behavior. A software fix to correct the problem was put in place in January.
At least two ex-inmates were charged with homicides that occurred while they should have been behind bars.
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“There is no one person or one action that can be singularly faulted, but that doesn’t change what happened,” Inslee said Thursday. “The series of errors — of omission and commission — combined for tragic results.”
The investigation took two months and was completed by retired federal prosecutors Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone.
They found no one appears to have known about the error until a crime victim’s father brought an inmate’s wrong release date to the department’s attention in December 2012. After that, investigators found, some officials who learned of the problem failed to understand its significance, didn’t connect it to public safety or simply don’t remember reading their emails.
“When somebody’s climbing over the wall, we’d send the bloodhounds for them and pull the fire alarm,” the Democratic governor said. “That did not happen here.”
The highest-ranking official found to have received information about the glitch was former Corrections Assistant Secretary Denise Doty, who later moved to Inslee’s budget office. Doty is one of three people who have quit or announced plans to quit since Inslee revealed the error publicly in December, including Secretary Dan Pacholke and Ronda Larson, an assistant attorney general who advised against doing hand counts of release dates.
Inslee said he is pursuing disciplinary actions that are to be announced.
Among the problems their report identifies was that DOC management was “minimally involved in setting priorities” for information-technology fixes. While a coding fix was requested in December 2012, it was put off many times and never given the agency’s full attention.
“Instead, it appears that priorities were set largely based on whoever ‘squeaked’ the loudest,” the report says.
“This ‘squeaky wheel’ phenomenon was a poor substitute for a logical ordering of work based on its importance to DOC and its impact on the community.”
An IT manager, Dave Dunnington, repeatedly delayed the project. He downgraded its importance from the second-highest level of severity to the third-highest and removed “must-fix” labels from the project.
As the IT project languished, no one followed the agency’s normal protocol of hand-counting release dates.
Wendy Stigall, the agency’s records manager who asked for the problem to be solved and knew it could affect the releases of thousands of inmates, made several attempts to raise the issue with Doty and other senior managers.
Investigators didn’t uncover any evidence that Inslee, Pacholke or his predecessor, Bernie Warner, knew about the problem. In interviews with investigators, Warner described having a vague memory related to a problem that had been corrected involving early release of a single inmate.
Pacholke took office in October. Investigators said he blamed Warner for “a sense of apathy within the department.” Some employees they interviewed were critical of Pacholke, who previously was prisons director, but no one tied those management problems to the delays in fixing the sentencing error.
The Corrections Department said in a statement that it is restructuring administrative and information-technology functions to ensure top managers are notified of problems.
Senate Republicans who have commissioned a parallel investigation pin blame on Warner for the culture of the agency.
“What is going on in Mr. Warner’s outfit that an IT person who is aware of this problem has no place to go with this information in a way where it will get dealt with, addressed and actions will be taken?” asked Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma.
O’Ban says he thinks he has an answer to that question: Warner’s mind was occupied with a different IT project to improve how inmates’ risk levels are calculated. Investigators didn’t find evidence that project caused the delay in fixing the sentencing error, however.
The error came to light again last year when a new chief information officer, Ira Feuer, came to the agency and began scheduling introductory meetings with agency employees. It was during one of those meetings on Nov. 2, 2015, when Stigall told Feuer about the sentencing miscalculations.
Feuer said after some tests were run, he realized that thousands of inmates could be affected — what he described to senators Thursday as an ‘oh, blank,’ moment.”
The investigators made several recommendations to help avoid similar errors in the future, including requiring more supervisory oversight of DOC’s information technology division, and closer scrutiny of legal advice provided to the agency.
Inslee said Thursday that the IT division at the agency is already undergoing changes.
One of the changes being made is to require hand-calculations of inmate release dates when there is a sentencing fix pending in the DOC’s computer system, Inslee said.
Other recommendations from the investigators include:
▪ Requiring senior managers from outside the DOC’s IT department to set priorities for systemwide computer fixes.
▪ Requiring assistant secretaries at DOC to be notified of systemwide errors involving sentencing, releases or supervision of offenders.
▪ Having more than one programmer available to fix sentencing errors.
▪ Creating an ombudsman position to help encourage DOC employees to come forward with their concerns about the agency.