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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Computer error freed 3,200 inmates early since 2002

OLYMPIA – A programming error in the computer that calculates when prisoners should be released allowed some 3,200 inmates out early over the last 13 years, state officials said Tuesday.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced an independent investigation into the ongoing error that allowed certain prisoners with “enhanced” sentences, such as extra prison time for committing a felony with a firearm, to get more credit for good behavior than the law allows. Five inmates have been returned to serve out the remainder of their sentences, as the state goes back to review all releases affected by the error.

“Frankly, it is maddening,” said Inslee, who was first informed of the problem late last week. “I have a lot of questions about how this happened.”

Inslee has appointed two former federal prosecutors to conduct an independent review. Depending on the findings of that investigation, some Department of Corrections officials could be fired, he said.

Republicans blasted the Inslee administration for the error, criticizing Inslee for concentrating on other areas like environmental protection instead of the nuts and bolts of government.

“It’s fine to fly off to Paris and think big thoughts about a global problem, but a governor needs to focus on and fix problems at home,” said Seattle Ports Commissioner Bill Bryant, who is running against Inslee in next year’s election. Inslee was in Paris earlier this month for the global climate summit.

Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, argued the main problem wasn’t with the department’s information technology, but the state’s leadership. His committee will hold a session on why the problem continued for years during the first week of the 2016 legislative session.

“I know this isn’t climate change, but the administration of justice is still an issue that warrants much more focus,” Padden said in a news release.

State officials don’t know yet if any former prisoners committed crimes during a time when they should still have been incarcerated. Nick Brown, Inslee’s legal counsel, said that’s possible because studies on recidivism show that about 10 percent of inmates commit crimes in the first year after release.

The average amount of time those inmates was released early is 49 days, although in one case an inmate was released 600 days early, and others only got out a few days before they should have.

The computer program should be fixed by early January, Inslee said. Until then, no inmate with an enhanced sentence will be released until Department of Corrections staff does a hand calculation of the good time credits that can move up their release date.

As the state identifies inmates who should be returned to prison to serve more time, the state will work with local law enforcement to find them and bring them back.

Inslee said the error first surfaced in 2012, when a family was notified of the impending release of a felon who had victimized them. The family questioned why the inmate was being released so early, did their own calculation of his possible release date that showed it was too soon, and contacted the department.

Prison officials did a manual calculation and determined the family was correct. The department discovered the computer that takes into account the thousands of variables that determine a release date was incorrectly calculating dates for inmates who had sentence enhancements, such as committing a crime with a firearm or near a schoolyard. That error apparently was a result of mistakes made when the program was changed in 2002 to account for a state Supreme Court ruling that the department must give prisoners “good time” credit they earn in county jail before being transferred to state prisons.

The department ordered those problems to be fixed at the next software update, which occurs every few months. But that fix was repeatedly postponed and rescheduled, Brown said. The department hired a new information technology director last month, who discovered the update had not been made.

The department is reviewing release dates of all inmates who would have been affected by the error, starting with the most recent cases. Five of the seven so far identified as still having time on their sentence have been returned.

But not every inmate will be returned because the Supreme Court has previously ruled that an inmate released early gets to count the days outside the walls against his sentence if he obeys all rules and doesn’t commit any new crimes. Based on the current average of incorrect calculations, most inmates released before this summer who have not been arrested for a new offense will have enough credit to remain out of prison.