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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control

WaLeg Day 1: Senators grill prisons chief

OLYMPIA – The Department of Corrections does not yet have an answer for why a computer error that allowed some 3,200 inmates the be released early took years to fix after it was first identified, the head of the department told a Senate panel Monday.

Republican members of the Senate Law and Justice Committee grilled Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke, asking who would be held responsible and whether the state could be liable for crimes committed by inmates who should have still been in prison but were released early.

“I don’t know anybody who’s not concerned about this,” Committee Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said. “This is a disturbing thing.”

Pacholke told panel members that calculating the early release of inmates for good behavior is complicated by laws that add extra time for things like committing a felony with a firearm, and by a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that orders the state to give them credit for good time earned in county jails before their sentencing. The order in which the various credits are applied can lead to a different release dates, and a computer program designed for that 2002 order miscalculated releases for inmates with those enhanced sentences.

Padden asked if the state could be sued for the crimes committed by inmates released early, including two that resulted in deaths – a murder in Spokane and a motor vehicle homicide in King County. They wouldn’t have occurred if the persons accused of the crimes were still serving their sentences as properly calculated.

“There’s certainly a potential for court cases to come out of any of these cases,” Pacholke agreed. He said he couldn’t estimate what it would be but “I’m sure there will be some costs.”

Two former federal prosecutors are conducting an investigation for the governor’s office on how the problem developed and how the department failed to make the changes for three years after a family pointed out that an inmate who had victimized them was being released too early. The department delayed the computer update 16 times, even though it was initially requested to be done as soon as possible.

When that investigation is complete, Pacholke said he would be “holding people accountable.”

In response to questions from Democrats on the committee, Pacholke said he had no reason to believe the independent investigation would be anything but full and fair, and the department would not do anything to inhibit the investigation.

Sen. Jeannie Darnielle, D-Tacoma, asked if the state saved any money by letting some prisoners out before their full sentence was served. Pacholke replied the department hasn’t calculated that, but if so, it would have resulted in extra money in the general fund.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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