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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Inmate release problem labeled urgent took years to address

OLYMPIA – Requests to change a computer program that was letting thousands of inmates out of prison before their sentences had been served were flagged as high priority and “must fix” but still weren’t included in regular updates for nearly three years, lawmakers were told Monday.

An employee for the Department of Corrections who was told about a discrepancy in the sentence for a specific inmate in late 2012 said she put through a request to fix the computer program that had been calculating prisoner release dates for 10 years. Wendy Stigall told the Senate Law and Justice Committee she wrote ASAP on the request, the first time she’d ever asked that a computer change be made as soon as possible.

“It was important,” Stigall said. “It involved releases.”

Stigall was notified of the problem after Matthew Mirante, a Kent, Washington, resident who was tracking the sentence of a man who had stabbed his son, called the department when his family was told of the assailant’s pending release. He calculated the release date and was sure the assailant was getting out about 45 days early. Department staff at first assured him the computer was right, but after calculating the release date by hand, they told Mirante he was correct and the computer wrong.

She assumed the change to the program that calculated release dates would be corrected “in a few months” based on the time needed to schedule such a revision in the department’s computer system that tracks each inmate’s sentence. The formula programmed into the system must adjust a standard sentence for good time an inmate earns in a county jail and in state facilities, but not make deductions to a sentence that has been “enhanced” for things like using a gun to commit a crime.

That formula, or algorithm, was developed after a 2002 Supreme Court ruling on calculating good time, but programmers at that time made a mistake, said Ronda Larson, an assistant attorney general for the department.

“The question is, how, mathematically, you implement it,” Larson said of the ruling. “It was a math error.”

Larson and department officials said calculating release dates is a complicated and time-consuming task to be done without a computer. When Mirante was asked how long it took him to calculate the release date for his son’s assailant, he replied: “About five minutes.”

Law and Justice Committee Chairman Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley, and other Republicans who have pushed for the Senate’s own investigation into what he called the early release “debacle,” said they would continue to push for answers to why the change took years. They’ll have another hearing this week and will ask to spend more than the approved $50,000 on the investigation.

“This is the mother of all computer fixes that needed to be made,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County.

Democrats on the committee compared the investigation to a “Keystone Kops” operation and said they think they already know why the fix took so long: Experienced state employees familiar with the computer system left. They object to spending any more money from the Senate’s budget until the committee reviews the report of a separate independent investigation commissioned by Gov. Jay Inslee.

“I think the smoking gun is that we went into a recession … and we had a mass exodus out of state jobs,” said Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma.