Corrections agency discovers sentence calculation problem

The problem is reminiscent of an early-release scandal four years ago that led to resignations.

By Joseph O’Sullivan and Jim Brunner / The Seattle Times

OLYMPIA — A software problem has caused at least a dozen Washington prison inmates to be released too early — or held too long — and has sparked a review of as many as 3,500 cases.

Department of Corrections (DOC) officials are scrambling to determine whether the other inmates’ sentences were miscalculated and are still working to gauge the scope of the problem.

The calculating problem involves offenders who served time in prison before being released into community supervision, or parole, but then violated the terms of their release and were returned to prison, according to DOC officials. Two of the offenders with miscalculated sentences were released early from prison, while 10 others were held beyond their correct term.

The problem also involves some offenders who were sentenced to community supervision. It’s not known what crimes were committed by all of those affected by the sentencing-calculation problem. Some started in prison, while others began in a residential drug-treatment program or on community supervision.

Officials say as many as 3,512 cases are being checked, though that number might include some duplicates. Of those, 2,053 offenders are now in prison, while the remaining 1,459 are on community supervision.

The problem is reminiscent of an early-release scandal four years ago that led to resignations, including of the then-DOC secretary.

The new problem was discovered last year as DOC staffers examining certain types of community-supervision sentences found they weren’t adding up correctly, possibly leading to early or late releases. DOC officials say they don’t know how long the miscalculations have been occurring.

When corrections workers tried to fix the sentencing errors, the software database sometimes wouldn’t allow the changes to be made, according to DOC officials who disclosed the issues after inquiries from The Seattle Times.

That has forced corrections staffers to start entering notes into the database’s case files to show correct release dates.

In recent weeks, a team of nearly 50 staffers has been manually checking those types of sentences and trying to fix the broader problem, according to agency officials.

DOC Secretary Stephen Sinclair and other agency leaders said the errors do not appear as significant as those that led to a furor four years ago when Gov. Jay Inslee announced that state prisons mistakenly had released thousands of prisoners before their sentences were up.

That scandal, which included two homicides linked to inmates who were released early, prompted the resignation of then-DOC secretary Dan Pacholke.

Since then, Sinclair says DOC has been constantly examining sentences to ensure that any new calculation problems are caught. “This is the work the governor wants us to do — identify these issues and fix them. It’s kind of routine in some respects,” he said.

The issue has again brought the OMNI software system and Washington’s complicated sentencing laws into the spotlight.

The same software was in use when thousands of miscalculated sentences were discovered by DOC in 2012, but not publicly announced until three years later, when DOC acknowledged it had mistakenly released as many as 3,200 offenders over 10 years.

The current problems involve persons in the Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative (DOSA) program who served their prison terms and were released into community supervision but violated the terms of their conditional release, according to DOC. Others started in a residential treatment program but violated those terms, sending them to prison.

Some other offenders with prison and community-supervision time are also affected, according to Dianne Ashlock, the agency’s statewide correctional records director.

State Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, said Sinclair briefed him last month on the latest problems.

“This is absolutely a function of how maddeningly complex our sentencing system is,” Goodman said. “The impression I got from them is they are working as hard as they can to figure this out. They are just being as vigilant as they possibly can be, in view of what happened last time.”

Goodman has proposed legislation, House Bill 1495, creating an 18-member task force that would review and recommend simplifications to the state’s sentencing guidelines, with a final report due by the end of 2020. He said his committee also may ask DOC leaders for a public briefing and explanation of the latest sentence-calculation problems.

The new problems weren’t publicly announced, according to Sinclair, because the agency discovered them in its “ongoing work” of ensuring sentences are accurate and because there is no indication of offenders committing crimes when they should have been confined.

“Certainly if there was some, I don’t know, lightning-rod moment, that probably would have been different,” he said.

In an email, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee said the governor has been briefed on the issue and had asked DOC to check the sentencing of offenders now in the system and as well as offenders who have recently been released.

Rep. Brad Klippert was briefed about the problem by Sinclair. Klippert, the ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee, said it could be time to consider a new software system for the agency.

“We need to do what we need to do, to get this fixed and get this fixed right, in the interest of justice and public safety,” said Klippert, R-Kennewick.

DOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay said Sinclair also spoke to Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, earlier this month about the problems.

Through a spokesman, Padden said he was told about the two early releases, but not made aware of the extent of the broader problem. He and Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, both of whom led investigations into the previous DOC sentence-calculating problems, said they were surprised to learn of the issues from The Seattle Times, and not DOC officials.

“I would have expected greater candor after the last debacle, that they would have wanted to come out early and make us aware of this and brief us,” O’Ban said.

Padden and O’Ban said they would be seeking more information and suggested officials conduct a public briefing with lawmakers.

Attempted fixes

Of the 10 offenders held in prison for too long, seven are now out, according to Barclay. Three are now confined for unrelated reasons.

Neither of the two men who got out of prison early as a result of the latest errors were charged with a crime during the period in which they were mistakenly released, according to Barclay. Both were returned to custody to finish their prison time and are now out on community supervision, he said.

One offender released early was a 48-year-old man who had been convicted in Pierce County on drug charges, according to Barclay. He was released from prison into community supervision on July 16, 2018, and was returned to prison Jan. 28. He served his remaining time and was returned to community supervision Feb. 19.

The other, a 27-year-old man, was convicted in Franklin County for possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of a firearm, according to Barclay. He was released from prison into community supervision Jan. 16, and returned to prison on Jan. 23. He returned to community supervision Feb. 2.

For years, DOC has struggled to keep confinement and community-supervision terms accurate as the OMNI system struggles to adapt to new legislation that makes changes to sentences, and court decisions that can also affect when offenders are released.

For example, Sinclair said there are roughly 60 bills going through the Legislature this year that, if approved and signed by the governor, could impact sentences.

The OMNI system was introduced in 2008, and DOC now contracts with a company, Sierra-Cedar, to help maintain it. DOC pays the company about $1.61 million annually for its work on the system that corrections staffers use to input and track sentences, according to the state’s contract.

In November 2017, DOC put together an eight-person task force to look at data on some instances of offenders with community supervision, according to Ashlock. Those staffers, as they became familiar with the data, began over the course of 2018 to notice problems.

That prompted the agency in December to request that Sierra-Cedar conduct a more detailed review. On Jan. 18, Sinclair sent a memo to agency staff giving an overview of the problem and providing a detailed list of steps that staffers should take when working on information in the OMNI system.

Appointed to DOC’s top job in April 2017, Sinclair said his administration must deal with the “inherited” system.

“Based on the time and energy that we’re spending on it, yeah, I think that in the future it would be worthwhile to have a newer system,” he said.

Inslee’s 2019-21 proposed state operating budget includes $1.2 million for new staffers to develop a data map that could help build a new system.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.

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