DOC was told manual review of sentencing errors could wait

OLYMPIA — Documents released late Wednesday by the state Department of Corrections show that the attorney general’s office advised the agency in 2012 that it wasn’t necessary to manually recalculate prisoners’ sentences after a software coding error that ultimately led to the erroneous early release of thousands of prisoners was brought to light.

The emails, released in response to a public records request by The Associated Press, show that the assistant attorney general assigned to the agency wrote in December 2012 that from a “risk management perspective,” a recalculation by hand wasn’t necessary because a software reprogramming fix would eventually take care of the issue.

Officials announced last week that as many as 3,200 offenders have being wrongly released early since 2002. So far, more than two dozen who need to serve additional time are back in custody, and the agency continues to review additional releases.

The Department of Corrections was first alerted to the error in December 2012, when a victim’s family learned of a prisoner’s imminent release. The family did its own calculations and found that the prisoner, Curtis Robinson, was being credited with too much time for good behavior.

In the emails released Wednesday, Assistant Attorney General Ronda D. Larson said that while a hand calculation needed to be done in the Robinson case, waiting for a programming fix for the other cases “should be sufficient.”

“Although this will result in offenders being released earlier than the law allows for the time being, until OMNI gets fixed, the DOC has been releasing them earlier for a decade (since the In re King decision), and a few more months is not going to make that much difference in light of this (with the exception of Robinson’s case),” Larson wrote to DOC employee Wendy Stigall on Dec. 7, 2012. “Furthermore, this is something that the DOC has identified internally, rather than something that is being forced upon it by an outside entity such as the court. It is therefore not so urgent as to require the large input of personnel resources to do hand-calculations of hundreds of sentences.”

Corrections officials this week acknowledged that the fix was delayed 16 times since December 2012 and ultimately was never done. A fix to the software problem is expected early next month and corrections officials say they continue to do manual recalculations for prisoners who are currently in prison and whose sentences may have been affected.

The mistake followed a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling — the King decision referenced in Larson’s email — that requires the Department of Corrections to apply good-behavior credits earned in county jail to state prison sentences. But the programming fix ended up giving prisoners with sentencing enhancements too much so-called good time credit.

Sentencing enhancements include additional prison time given for certain crimes, such those using firearms. Under state law, prisoners who get extra time for sentencing enhancements cannot have it reduced for good behavior.

On Monday, the agency revealed that one of the prisoners released early because of the coding error was charged with killing his girlfriend in a car crash when he should have been behind bars.

In a written statement issued late Wednesday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the 2012 advice “was deeply flawed and failed to emphasize the urgency of addressing this critical issue.”

Ferguson had not yet taken office when the emails from Larson were sent; previous Attorney General Rob McKenna was serving his final month in that office.

Ferguson said he has directed his staff to conduct a thorough review of the internal processes that led to that advice and which “failed to raise such a critical issue to the highest levels of our office.”

He also said his office would review records for other advice related to the matter dating back to 2002, and he noted his office would “cooperate fully” with the independent investigation that is occurring at the Department of Corrections. Two retired federal prosecutors have been brought in to conduct an independent investigation to determine why the error occurred and went unfixed for more than 13 years.

Larson did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking comment.

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