Gov. Jay Inslee has owned up to an ongoing error at the Department of Corrections that led to the early release of some 3,200 felons from prison over a 13-year period.
Three of the 27 offenders released improperly since June went on to commit unspecified crimes during the time they should have been in lockup.
How well anyone at top levels of government understood the computer glitch, which led to releasing the inmates by an average of 49 days early, is not yet clear.
Inslee, a Democrat facing re-election next year, announced Tuesday that he’s hired two retired federal prosecutors to investigate the history of the problem and why it was not fixed in 2012 — when it first came to light under a former governor. That is appropriate.
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“That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing, it is totally unacceptable, and frankly, it is maddening,” Inslee told reporters.
Inslee indicated that it is possible someone could lose his or her job over the failures.
The original mistake occurred under the administration of Gov. Gary Locke in 2002. The state Supreme Court ruled in July that year that inmates should receive “good time” credit based on good behavior for time spent in county jails, not just prison. That led to coding changes in DOC’s software that calculate a prisoner’s release date. Full credit for good behavior can reduce as much as one-third of a prison sentence.
But the new coding failed to distinguish between base sentences, for which good-behavior reductions can be made, and sentencing enhancements such as extra prison time for using a firearm or committing a felony near a school. By law, no good time can be deducted from the enhancement portion of a sentence.
About 3 percent of all offenders in the state system were affected by the error. This meant an early release by about 600 days in the worst case, though officials say many were off by just a few days.
It makes sense to return offenders to custody in the cases where they didn’t fly right upon release. But there may be cases where it is an injustice to return an offender to custody.
The Corrections mistakes are likely to morph into a political issue in the 2016 election. Announced Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Bryant jumped immediately to say Inslee needed to make it clearer that jobs are on the line for DOC staffers.
“Bureaucrats and Inslee’s political appointees need to be held accountable for knowing about a problem for years and not fixing it,” Bryant said in a campaign statement.
After Locke left office in early 2005, Chris Gregoire served two terms as governor; Inslee took office in January 2013. An Inslee spokeswoman said the case of one felon released early in 2012 raised eyebrows because it was so early; this led to questions from the family of the victim, and DOC, which was then overseen by Bernie Warner, was supposed to fix the glitch.
Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, who recently was promoted to his position, said some staff in DOC knew about the glitch in 2012 but it was not fixed. Pacholke apologized for the agency’s failure and called it an “unforgivable error.’’
Inslee and corrections managers must find out why a systematic problem went on so long and only came to light three years later.
A clean investigation that puts all the cards on the table for the public to see is the best way to make sure this doesn’t happen again.