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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Early release of inmates traced to management failures

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee listens to a question as he talks to reporters Thursday, Feb. 25, 2016, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash., about his office's nearly two-month investigation into the early release of prisoners by the Dept. of Corrections over a 13-year period. “The depth of this failure is profound,” he said. (Ted Warren / Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Special investigators found incompetence and failed management but nothing malicious in a long-ignored computer problem that allowed more than 3,000 inmates to be released from Washington prisons before their sentences had been fully served.

Advice from an assistant attorney general that prisoner releases could continue until the system was fixed was “seriously flawed,” investigators concluded. People who knew the magnitude of the problem did not speak up forcefully enough in a department that seems to operate on the “squeaky wheel” principle.

Gov. Jay Inslee called it “an inexplicable failure at an individual and institutional level.” It spanned 13 years and the tenures of three department secretaries.

“This failure had tragic consequences,” Inslee said in releasing the report. Some of the inmates released early have been charged with crimes committed during the time they should have been still in prison, including one homicide in Spokane.

Senate Republicans who have launched their own investigation into the early releases said they still have questions and will continue with hearings. They suspect some blame for the three-year delay in fixing the computer program may fall on former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner’s interest in another computer project.

“Our investigation still has a ways to go,” said Senate Law and Justice Committee Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. The committee has scheduled at least one hearing for next week and might not be finished before March 10, when the legislative session is scheduled to adjourn.

Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, said testimony to the committee suggests the information technology department was “so dysfunctional it didn’t have the normal checks and balances” to catch the problem.

The governor’s investigation also is not complete. Although investigators interviewed about 60 witnesses and reviewed more than 130,000 documents, former federal prosecutor Robert Westinghouse said they have recently received another 16,000 documents.

The genesis of the early-release problem dates to 2002, when the computer program that calculates when an inmate’s sentence is complete was incorrectly rewritten to address a state Supreme Court decision on inmate good time. That mistake wasn’t discovered until late 2012, by the family of an assault victim.

Department of Corrections employees who were told of that mistake initially thought it involved only a few inmates, then hundreds, and by January 2013 realized it could involve about 2,700. But the request for a programming fix was repeatedly postponed by staff who handled information technology projects and apparently didn’t know the magnitude of the problem. By late last year it had affected some 3,200 inmates.

Investigators said they found no “smoking gun” that suggests anyone at the Department of Corrections deliberately delayed developing and installing a programming fix between late 2012, when the problem first came to the attention of a department employee, and November 2015, when a new chief information officer learned of the unaddressed problem.

Investigators recommended several changes to the department, including an ombudsman to allow employees to come forward and voice concerns that aren’t being addressed by superiors.

“People did not connect up the early releases with ‘This was endangering the public,’ ” said Carl Blackstone, one of the investigators. The department cannot blame the problem on a computer error, Inslee said. Rather, it was a failure to act on the computer error.

“The depth of this failure is profound,” he said. Two employees – the assistant secretary for the department that managed information technology and the assistant attorney general who advised the department it didn’t have to calculate release times manually until the program was fixed – have resigned. Other personnel “will be held accountable” with a range of actions that will be announced soon, Inslee added.