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Inmates released early because of bad management, Senate Republicans say

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, talks in Olympia about the Law and Justice Committee majority report released Wednesday that criticizes top management at the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office in the wake of early releases of some 3,000 inmates. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, talks in Olympia about the Law and Justice Committee majority report released Wednesday that criticizes top management at the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office in the wake of early releases of some 3,000 inmates. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

The early release of several thousand inmates from Washington’s prisons can be traced to bad management at the Department of Corrections and lack of oversight by the governor’s office, Senate Republicans conclude in a report released Wednesday morning.

The 66-page report lays the blame most heavily on former Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner, describing him as a poor communicator with inadequate management practices, who was often absent and lacked interest in the Information Technology department.

What’s more, Corrections Department staff may have been reluctant to complain, the report charges, because of what it calls a romantic relationship between Warner and a member of the governor’s staff.

Under questioning from reporters at the report’s release, Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Lakewood, said that relationship involved Inslee’s former chief of staff, Joby Shimomura. Shimomura would be responsible for overseeing Warner as a department head, O’Ban added.

He called that “an apparent conflict of interest, if not an actual one.”

But Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said later that investigators did not have a specific example of that conflict occurring.

The 66-page report is the product of a special inquiry by the Senate Law and Justice Committee that Padden chairs. It was undertaken earlier this year after the Corrections Department revealed that an improperly programmed computer miscalculated sentences for some inmates and let out more than 3,000 early.

To characterize the early releases as a “computer glitch” is incorrect, Senate Republicans said in their majority report.

“This is one of the biggest failures in public safety in this state in a very long time,” Padden said Wednesday..

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, said the report contains “no new information on who knew what, when,” and the governor already said the problems started with Warner. She accused Republicans of spending taxpayer money on a partisan effort.

Regarding the relationship between Warner and Shimomura, Smith said, “The Senate Republicans have now adopted an odd fascination with Mr. Warner’s personal life and had they even bothered to ask us about this, we could have told them that we had established a series of checks to ensure no conflicts of interests with our office.”

The relationship between Warner and Shimomura “was not in any way a secret,” Smith said, and Warner reported to the deputy chief of staff until she left last year.

The Corrections Department was told to fix the computer program in 2012 after the family of a crime victim pointed out that the assailant in their case was being let out too soon. But the fix was regularly bumped from the schedule of maintenance changes.

After their early release, some inmates committed crimes when they should have still been in prison, including Jeremiah Smith, who is accused of murdering a Spokane teen shortly after his release.

The problem with a computer program miscalculating release times for inmates who had sentence “enhancements” – extra time for elements of their case such as using a firearm to commit a crime – dates to a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling. The program was incorrectly changed to reflect the ruling but the department didn’t catch the mistake until contacted by the family.

The problem wasn’t made public until last December, when a new director of information technology for the Corrections Department realized the fix still hadn’t been made, that it potentially affected thousands of inmates, and informed the governor’s office. Inslee announced it the next day, and hired two former federal prosecutors to investigate.

Unhappy with some aspects of that investigation, Senate Republicans launched a separate probe with the consent of Democrats on the Law and Justice Committee. They issued subpoenas – extremely rare for a legislative committee – and held public hearings.

The investigation ordered by Inslee concluded last month that the early releases were a result of incompetence and failed management, but there was nothing malicious. Senate Republicans quickly criticized the investigation for placing the blame on lower-level employees at the Corrections Department and the attorney general’s office.

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