PORT ORCHARD, Wash. — As Kitsap County jail corrections officers prepared to shackle Robert “Doug” Pierce for the bus to the state prison in Shelton, he was handed a flurry of paperwork.
It was December 2009 and Pierce was facing a two-year stint for possession of meth. He knew that he’d be credited for the 213 days he’d already served in the Kitsap County jail leading up to his trial and sentencing. He also knew that he would have time taken off his sentence for good behavior. Under Kitsap County’s policy, inmates at the jail can get one-third off their sentence if they behave themselves behind bars.
But when a corrections officer handed Pierce a form that detailed his “good time,” he knew instantly something was amiss.
“This isn’t right,” he told the officer.
Pierce, now 48 and a recovering meth addict with a history of possession charges, knew at the time that he couldn’t ask questions. He had to get on the bus to Shelton.
In time, however, Pierce, who just recently got his GED, uncovered an error in how the county calculates “good time.” It was an error that went undetected by county jail staff, lawyers and the state. His discovery prompted the county to rewrite its policy, altering the sentences of a still countless number of prison inmates from Kitsap serving time around the state.
Jail officials aren’t sure when the error began.
The courts have held that early release earned by good behavior is necessary to “maintain discipline and to control the behavior of inmates,” according to Ronda Larson, an assistant state attorney general in the office’s corrections division.
Earned release time is also key to rehabilitation. Inmates who complete their GED or learn new job skills — both components of earning good time — are less likely to re-offend, said Dan Pacholke, deputy director of prisons for the Department of Corrections, decreasing the likelihood they’ll have another victim.
“It’s a public safety tool,” Pacholke said.
But the Department of Corrections leaves it to counties to calculate the “good time” felons earn while sitting in their lockup before going to state prison.
The state DOC is allowed to correct “manifest” errors, such as when an offender gets too much good time. But if the inmate comes into prison with less good time than they’ve earned, it’s not DOC’s job to correct it, said Wendy Stigall, the Department of Corrections’ records manager.
“We didn’t question it, because it’s their rules,” she said. “We don’t try and tell them how to run their jail.”
The state’s 37 county jails are at liberty to award any amount of good time they choose, as long as it doesn’t exceed 33 percent of the sentence. On top of that, not all inmates earn good time.
Pierce did earn it, however, and he was eligible for the 33 percent off Kitsap County gives to those with good behavior.
Pierce received a 24-month sentence, or 730 days. He served 213 days in the county jail.
In calculating his good time, the jail took 213 days, divided it by three and got 71 days. Jail officials added the two numbers together and reported to the Department of Corrections that 284 days of his sentence was complete. He’d serve the remainder of his time in prison.
Seventy-one days is one-third of a 213-day sentence. But because he’d already served 213 days, a new equation comes into play, and jail officials should have divided his sentence in half to determine the total earned release time, which would have added up to 106 days of good time.
Therefore, he should’ve been credited 319 days when he entered the state prison system.
In sum, Pierce spent 35 extra days in prison. While seemingly meager, it costs $100 a day to house an offender in a state prison, and there are 548 inmates from Kitsap County in the prison system, according to DOC.
Pierce didn’t have much time to look into the miscalculation when he first arrived in the prison system. From December 2009 to February 2010, he stayed at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, where inmates have a few hours outside of a cell each day.
Still, Pierce asked a cellmate about his good time. The man, from Pierce County, had the correct number of days, reinforcing Pierce’s belief that he was right.
He began writing letters to anyone he could think of — his attorney, Kitsap County Superior Court, the attorney general’s office and others.
He was transferred to Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell in February. There, he got a job constructing a new housing unit, got his GED and found God, he said.
He believes it was God who delivered him a typewriter when he was given a cellmate in possession of one. He didn’t know how to type, but he learned as he continued writing letters.
In May, he heard back from Clarke Tibbits, head of Kitsap County Public Defender’s Office. The news was good.
“… There is no other way to describe the situation other than the (jail) is incorrectly calculating good time,” Tibbits wrote.
The error was acknowledged in meetings between Tibbits and jail administrators. Ned Newlin, corrections chief, decided the policy needed to be rewritten to fix the problem.
“Our intention is to be transparent,” Newlin said. “We want to do it right.”
Newlin points out that offenders whose earned release time has been miscalculated aren’t serving more time than a judge ordered.
“No offender is ever spending more time than they’re sentenced to,” he said.
The staff at the jail is also currently reviewing the past three years of cases in which Kitsap offenders have gone on to serve prison time at a state facility, Newlin said, though he doesn’t know when the miscalculation began. Any current state prison inmate with the same problem as Pierce’s — which would include any Kitsap County jail inmate who qualified for earned release time — will see an adjustment in their good time, he added.
Newlin said the jail doesn’t know yet when the math error began. The jail started giving one-third off sentences for good behavior in October 2007.
Pierce was ultimately credited with his good time and got out in September instead of October. But he did lose out on 10 days off his sentence that DOC gives inmates who have found housing and whose affairs are in order before their release date. The reason: his good time was corrected too late for corrections officials to allow the legally required number of days for community notification of his release.
Those already out but had a miscalculated earned release time could attempt a lawsuit for damages, but Mary Fan, a criminal law professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said they have a pretty high legal hurdle to overcome. They’d need to prove a violation of a “clearly established constitutional right” — and that’s unlikely, she said.
Kitsap County officials haven’t been the only ones to confuse the math in calculating time off for good behavior. A Washington State Supreme Court decision in 1993 amended a King County man’s sentence for the same error Pierce discovered in Kitsap County — and even the Court of Appeals missed the math error in that case.
A fix legislatively would flip — and help — the system, Tibbits and Newlin said. Rather than reporting to DOC how many days of good time an inmate is eligible for, they advocate reporting how many days they’d already served and how many days were lost as a result of discipline problems.
“It needs to be written in stone,” Newlin said of state law on good time. “It’s just left to incredible interpretation right now.”
“It just seems to me that DOC is in … a better position to receive a slip from the county that simply states how long the inmate was in custody at the county, and if they’re entitled to all of their good time,” Tibbits said. “That’s really all they need to know.”
DOC’s Larson said it’s about respecting counties’ local control.
“To say there has to be a one-size-fits-all good time percentage disregards the grass-roots local-control governmental structure that our state was founded upon, where 39 counties each have their own government, including a local jail tailored to meet local circumstances,” Larson said.
Pierce, who got out in early September, said he’s working to turn his life around. He believes he made a mistake — and went to prison to correct it. He’s glad Kitsap County jail officials are willing to correct their own mistake, too.
He said math is not his strong suit. His GED transcripts show he scored well in science; well enough in math to pass.