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Corrections’ computer tracking fix ‘a disaster’

Associated Press

OLYMPIA – The multimillion-dollar revamping of the state Department of Corrections’ computer system, launched six years ago, was supposed to help authorities keep better track of the state’s parolees and prisoners.

But the effort is more than $6 million over budget and two years behind schedule.

“It’s a disaster. It’s been a disaster for a long time,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, a member of the Information Services Board that oversees state technology projects.

“It should have gotten done,” he added. “It should have gotten to a point where we could deploy it. They slipped.”

The Offender Management Network Information project was intended to address problems in the department’s 20-year-old computer system. Agency workers say they spend more time entering codes than monitoring people in the field, according to a 2002 legislative audit.

The state has 17,000 prisoners and 32,000 parolees. Inadequate supervision of parolees has resulted in several highly publicized cases and expensive verdicts, including $22.5 million awarded to the family of a Tacoma woman who was killed in a 1997 car crash by a felon who had repeatedly violated parole.

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City, who serves with Hunter on the oversight board, described the current system as a “bubble-gum-and-baling-wire operation.”

“There is a risk to public safety over the long term,” Anderson said. “Having a functioning offender-management system is essential.”

The project’s second phase, which was to have been completed last month, would offer authorities a menu of options for quick access to such information as how much time an offender has left to serve.

Corrections officials say they are confident that they can get the new, $58 million system up and running by June 2007.

“Projects of this size are always going to have some unexpected challenges,” said Harold Clarke, the new head of the Corrections Department. “There are many opinions out there as to why things occurred. We need to constantly evaluate where we’re at and learn from the mistakes we made earlier, and keep in mind our objective.”

Easier said than done.

In the past year, the OMNI project has been marked by tension, high personnel turnover and strained relations between the Corrections Department and the vendor, IBM Global Services, according to a review of oversight and consultant reports.

“We have seldom seen the level of tension, lack of trust or absence of respect we see exhibited in this project,” according to Sierra Systems, an independent consultant that advised the agency to consider other options.

Corrections officials say the project is taking longer than expected partly because the Legislature changed the way the agency needed to monitor felons.

But Anderson said that the project wasn’t properly designed to begin with and that the agency didn’t give it a high priority.

Jim Walters, who recently left his position as the Corrections Department project manager who tested computer codes, said IBM didn’t set a realistic schedule. He also said that corrections officials didn’t manage the project well and tried to do too much.

The Corrections Department has renegotiated its contract with IBM several times since it first signed in 1999. The most recent change scaled down the project yet gave IBM more than $1 million. Previous changes in the contract gave IBM more than $3 million, despite warnings from three consultants that IBM wasn’t managing some parts of the project properly.

“In effect, IBM is being rewarded for poor or nonperformance,” an independent consultant, Coplan and Co., wrote to the Corrections Department in November.

IBM spokesman Clay Helm says the company is on track to complete the project’s second phase. The first phase has been operating for two years, she said, adding that changes along the way are not unusual for a project of this scale.

The oversight board started asserting more control in the past year and Gov. Christine Gregoire has asked the Department of Information Services to get involved. Gary Robinson, the head of that agency, became co-manager of the project late last year.

Although the Legislature approved $11.25 million in April for the third phase of the project, Corrections must go to the oversight board before they spend the money.

The new agency director, Harold Clarke, should be given time to fix the problem, Anderson said.

“If at that point, they can’t do it, yes, we’ll probably shut the whole thing down and start from scratch,” he said.

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