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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington Senate considers outside oversight of prisons

UPDATED: Mon., Feb. 20, 2017, 9:34 p.m.

OLYMPIA – Washington could save millions on lawsuits like the claim for the slaying of teenager in a north Spokane tattoo parlor if it would spend money on an outside office to oversee the Department of Corrections, a Senate committee was told Monday.

Some lawmakers are pushing for an outside ombudsman’s office for the department where complaints about the department policies and actions could get an independent review. Cost estimates for such an office vary, from about $700,000 to $3 million a year, depending on how big the office is and how many investigators or auditors it employs.

But even at the high end, that’s cheaper than the $5 million claim the state is facing from the improper release of an inmate in 2015, said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, one of the bill’s sponsors.

The family of Ceasar Medina, 17, who was shot during the robbery of Northwest Accessories tattoo parlor, has filed the claim. Jeremiah Smith, who is charged with the killing, was one of about 3,000 inmates released early from prison because of a mistake in the program that calculated when a sentence was complete based on court rulings and good-time adjustments. Smith was released on May 14, and the robbery and slaying happened on May 26.

A proper calculation of his sentence would have kept Smith in prison until Aug. 10.

State officials believe 29 felonies were committed by inmates released early and resulted in two deaths, Padden said. Along with the alleged murder in north Spokane, there was a vehicular homicide committed by an inmate who was released early.

“There’s huge costs to the state if we don’t do something,” he said.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee, on which Padden serves as chairman, investigated the problems that resulted in the Department of Corrections not realizing for years the sentences were being improperly calculated and then delaying the needed programming fixes to correct it.

From that investigation, the committee had a series of recommendations which includes an outside ombudsman office for the department, a review of the department’s administrative structure and whether prisons are adequately staffed, and a call for more simplified sentencing that makes it easier to calculate release dates. The Senate Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on Padden’s bill that would put all of those recommendations into law, and another that would just set up the special ombudsman’s office.

Although the office has bipartisan support, witnesses at the hearing said the Legislature has considered such a move several times in the last 10 years but has so far failed to give it final approval. The Ways and Means Committee has until the end of the week to decide whether to send one or both bills to the full Senate.

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