State lawmakers grill Corrections chief over mistaken inmate releases

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers confronted the leader of the Department of Corrections Monday about errors which enabled convicted criminals to get out of prison early since 2002.

The Senate Law and Justice Committee quizzed Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke for nearly an hour on the software glitch that enabled the mistaken release of an estimated 3,200 inmates. So far, the deaths of two people have been tied to convicted criminals set free by mistake.

“It is certainly one of the most egregious management failures in state government that I’ve been aware of in the time that I’ve been in the Legislature,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane, the committee chairman.

Senators pressed Pacholke on why the problem never got fixed even after Corrections Department personnel learned about it in December 2012.

Pacholke apologized for the “tragic error” but said he didn’t know why the needed update was delayed 16 times, and may not know until an independent investigation is completed later this year.

“This is a grave breach of public trust and it’s critical that we rebuild confidence in the Department of Corrections,” he said.

He told lawmakers the long-delayed fix will be deployed Tuesday.

The hearing came shortly after the 2016 legislative session got under way Monday. The session is scheduled to run 60 days.

Legislative leaders expect to focus on finding a path to amply fund public schools by a 2018 deadline, complying with a federal court mandate to evaluate mentally ill inmates held in county jails and paying the tab for last summer’s major wildfires.

But the situation with the Corrections Department is going to be a hot topic throughout.

“You can’t whitewash this. We have to make darn sure nothing like this happens again,” said Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, a committee member, following the hearing. “This is one of the bigger breaches of public safety in our state.”

In the hearing, Pacholke described how a sequencing miscalculation in the agency’s electronic records system resulted in inaccurate release dates for roughly 3 percent of all offenders released since 2002

He said when he learned of it in mid-December he ordered the manual recalculation of sentences for all inmates schedule for release through Feb. 7. He also ordered sentences be rechecked for those already released.

On Dec. 22, Gov. Jay Inslee announced he had hired two retired federal prosecutors to figure out why the mistake went undetected for a decade and unfixed when it became known in 2012 under former secretary Bernie Warner.

Under questioning from senators, Pacholke said he had not spoken to Warner and wouldn’t while the investigation is going on.

Pacholke could not answer some questions, like why he didn’t learn about it until mid-December even though the head of the agency’s technology section reportedly knew a month earlier.

And he endured some pointed criticism that in knowingly allowing inmates to be released early, some employees demonstrated a lack of commitment to public safety. Pacholke defended the agency.

“I believe we are a good organization,” and it is wrong to stain the entire agency with such a “broad brush” because of the error, he said.

In the hearing Pearson asked Pacholke if he was preparing for the potential cost to the state from future lawsuits.

“Certainly there will be some cost to it but I couldn’t guess as to what it would be,” he said, adding that his focus now is on getting the software changed and working.

Afterward, Pearson said he and the public will be watching Pacholke closely to see how he goes about restoring trust in the agency’s ability to carry out sentences.

“It is my hope Secretary Pacholke will demonstrate leadership in this,” he said. “It’s on his shoulders. The buck stops with him.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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