Delay in fixing early release problem maddening, costly

It’s the kind of news that shakes confidence in state government; that 3,200 state Department of Corrections prisoners were released earlier than they should have been when software used to determine release dates gave “good time” credits to offenders who weren’t eligible because their crimes involved deadly weapons or other sentencing enhancements.

It goes far beyond a shaking of confidence when even a handful of those released early have been found to have reoffended and that innocent lives have been lost. One inmate is alleged to have shot and killed a Spokane teenager when he still should have been locked up. Another who had time remaining is charged with vehicular homicide following a wreck in Bellevue that killed his girlfriend.

What’s even more maddening: Though the problem has been ongoing since 2002 when a state Supreme Court ruling required inmates get “good time” credits for time spent in county jails, the state was alerted to the problem in 2012 when the family of a victim made their own calculation and showed the inmate was about to be released prematurely.

About 70 former inmates released too early have been identified and the cases are being reviewed; more than 20 are back in prison and completing their sentences. Most were released a few days to about 100 days sooner than should have been allowed. An earlier Supreme Court decision means most won’t have to go back; those who have found work and lawfully resumed their lives shouldn’t be made to complete their terms.

Thanks to a public records request, the Associated Press obtained emails that showed that an assistant attorney general for the state, Ronda D. Larson, informed the state Department of Corrections in December 2012 that it wouldn’t be necessary to perform hand recalculations of release dates because a software fix was expected to soon fix the problem.

“A few more months,” read one email from Larson, “is not going to make that much difference … .”

Larson went further in her email to say that the matter wasn’t urgent because the problem had been “identified internally,” rather than by a court order, for example. The issue wasn’t “identified internally,” of course, but a court order shouldn’t be necessary for a public agency to take the necessary steps to protect the public’s interest and safety.

Without the necessary urgency, a software fix was delayed 16 times since 2012, and hundreds more were released before their sentences should have been considered satisfied. The software problem now is expected to be fixed later this month. Until then, release dates are being calculated manually, something that should have started three years ago.

Rob McKenna, who was completing his term as attorney general when Larson sent the emails to the Department of Corrections, said that neither he nor his senior staff knew about the issue or about Larson’s advice to wait. Current Attorney General Bob Ferguson has called Larson’s advice “deeply flawed” and has ordered an internal review. Additionally, Gov. Jay Inslee has asked two retired federal prosecutors to investigate and determine why the issue was allowed to go uncorrected for so long.

Expect the report to identify plenty of buck-passing and assumptions once it’s complete. And expect costly civil lawsuits to drive those points home for state officials and employees.

Clarification: An earlier version of this editorial conflated two separate investigations. Attorney Gen. Bob Ferguson has ordered an internal investigation at his office. Gov. Jay Inslee has hired two retired federal prosecutors to also investigate the matter.

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