One of the most disturbing things about the deadly prison-release scandal at the Department of Corrections is the way top state officials keep telling us it wasn’t their fault. The governor’s investigators went to great lengths to blame midlevel workers for the mistaken early release of some 3,000 robbers, rapists and murderers – ignoring the failure of leadership that caused one of the worst cases of malfeasance in Washington state history.
Two people are dead because of these early releases – one of them, Caesar Medina, a teenage boy shot to death in Spokane. Add to that numerous crimes – we still don’t know how many – and it is easy to see why anyone might be reluctant to take responsibility. But the problems really did start at the top, with the former corrections secretary appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee, and with the people in the governor’s office who were supposed to manage the manager. The governor could do much to begin the healing process by acknowledging his staff and the executive branch failed the people of this state.
As chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee, I oversaw the Legislature’s independent investigation into the DOC debacle. We represented the public and we took that responsibility seriously. We invoked rarely used powers of subpoena, hired outside counsel, reviewed more than 100,000 pages of documents, gathered sworn statements from witnesses and heard testimony under oath during extensive public hearings. Our inquiry offered the public an opportunity it would not have gotten otherwise, to learn what happened in an unfiltered way. And because everything we generated is a matter of public record, anyone who doubts our conclusions can check our work.
There were two major mistakes. The first occurred in 2002 when the agency misinterpreted a ruling from the state Supreme Court and programmed its computers incorrectly. Felons who earned special add-on “enhancements” to their sentences for sex crimes and use of weapons were released an average two months early, some as much as two years. But the more deplorable failure came a decade later, when DOC learned of the problem and did nothing for another three years.
Some agency employees recognized their responsibility. They identified the problem, requested a computer fix and notified their superiors, just as they were supposed to do. These were the midlevel employees who were reprimanded by the governor for not doing enough. Yet our investigation demonstrated DOC executives had sufficient knowledge to take action themselves. Some knew about the early release problem in detail. Some knew enough to make further inquiries, including former Secretary Bernie Warner. And some tell curious stories, like a former risk manager who was supposed to catch problems like this one and can’t explain how she missed it.
An assistant attorney general offered an unfortunate written opinion that the agency could continue releasing prisoners early until a fix was completed. But it was the responsibility of DOC executives to think about it carefully. If we are to believe what we have been told, not a single one sat upright and said, wait a second, what if one of these prisoners commits a new crime?
Even if every executive had been incompetent, the problem should have been fixed as a matter of routine. But DOC executives irresponsibly diverted resources from computer software maintenance to a grandiose risk-management project that may never be completed. None of them bothered asking whether anything important was being put on hold.
Worse yet, one of the DOC execs who knew about the early-release issue took a job on the governor’s staff – and as corrections policy adviser to Inslee, she made no inquiries either. The governor’s office ignored numerous warning signs of mismanagement, like reorganizations that made no sense and mass resignations in IT. The fact that Warner was dating a senior official in the Inslee administration would have made it difficult for anyone to ask tough questions, and may explain why no one did.
Warner is the prime actor in this disaster, but the context is the culture of apathy within DOC and the governor’s office. It is dismaying to hear a spokeswoman for the governor claim the Senate’s investigation revealed nothing new, even though the governor’s own report on the matter absolved most agency managers and ignored the governor’s responsibility. Our proposals for next session include legislation spelling out the governor’s duty to manage state agencies. If it takes a law to convince people to accept their responsibility – that’s a place to start.
State Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican, represents the 4th Legislative District, which includes Spokane Valley.
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