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Opinion

Wed., March 15, 2017

Prison reform bill provides needed oversight

The long-running prison debacle that may have resulted in the murder of a Spokane teenager is the subject of a Senate bill that would provide important reforms.

Something needs to be done, because what occurred was such a stunning mistake. After a computer-system glitch, more than 3,000 violent offenders and other inmates were released from prison early. Incredibly, this went on for 13 years, starting in 2002.

The problem wasn’t noticed for about a decade, and the Washington Department of Corrections only became aware of it when the family of a crime victim discovered the perpetrator was being released early. Even then, the error in how release dates were calculated by computer was not fixed for three years, and early releases continued.

Two deaths have been linked to the releases, along with other serious crimes. The Department of Corrections has said 29 early-release prisoners have committed crimes. The average early-release time was 59 days, but some prisoners were let go almost two years too soon.

One of the early-release inmates was Jeremiah Smith, who was arrested in the May 26, 2005 murder of Caesar Medina, 17, at a North Spokane tattoo parlor. Smith should have been in prison until Aug. 10 of that year.

Medina’s mother has filed a $5 million claim against the state.

DOC’s lack of urgency and follow-through was stunning, and the scandal led to two investigations, one by the governor’s office and one by the Republican-controlled Senate.

The reports became political footballs, but nobody doubts the need for significant management reform, even though the director during this debacle, Bernie Warner, is gone.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, are sponsoring SB 5294, which would make a number of changes in the oversight of the Department of Corrections. On March 6, the bill passed on a 49-0 vote, and it now goes to the House of Representatives.

The bill would set up an independent ombudsman’s office for the department to investigate complaints from workers, prisoners and their families. The office could also advocate for reforms. Creating the office is an expense, but it would pay for itself if it headed off multimillion dollar negligence claims.

The Senate probe gathered extensive information from employees, and many said management wasn’t receptive to criticism. The bill would strengthen whistleblower protections to encourage workers to come forward when they see problems.

Though some Democrats disagree with aspects of the Senate report on what happened and why, they do agree that reforms are needed, including a way to simplify a complicated sentencing system.

The scandal at DOC exposed serious management flaws. Lawmakers are right to step in and hold the agency accountable with independent oversight.

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