Software errors can often produce unintended consequences, but they rarely involve the premature release of convicted felons — such goofs make for really bad press. So imagine Washington Governor Jay Inslee's frustration as his office tried to explain on Tuesday how up to 3,200 prisoners were mistakenly released early from the state's prisons over the past 13 years because of a programming glitch.
What's worse, the state Department of Corrections has actually been aware of the problem since 2012 but never got around to fixing it.
"That this problem was allowed to continue to exist for 13 years is deeply disappointing," Inslee said. "It is totally unacceptable, and frankly it is maddening."
The issue started after a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling that ordered the Department of Corrections to apply good-behavior credits earned by inmates in county jail to their state prison sentences. But the rule was supposed to have an exception: good-behavior credits could not be applied to sentencing enhancements that add extra time to prison penalties for aggravating factors, such as the use of a deadly weapon.
The computer program overlooked the exemption and misapplied the credits, Inslee's office said in a statement. The median number of days shaved off of the sentences in question has been estimated at 49.
According to the Associated Press, relatives of a victim did their own calculations on a prisoner's release date and notified officials of the discrepancy in December 2012. A fix was ordered, but it was routinely delayed and never implemented. No reason for this has yet been offered, and presumably whomever manages the department's IT division has some explaining to do.
Nicholas Brown, Inslee's general counsel, noted at a press conference that IT adjustments go into a prioritized workflow.
"What we know, I think, at a bare minimum, is the proper prioritization did not occur," he said.
According to the Associated Press, the glitch was going to affect as many as 3,100 additional prisoners who are still incarcerated. Officials said they will do release date calculations by hand until the computer program is corrected
The problem was rediscovered last week, according to Inslee's office. The governor said he has hired two former federal prosecutors to investigate why the problem was not addressed immediately.
"I have a lot of questions about how and why this happened, and I understand that members of the public will have those same questions," Inslee said. "I expect the external investigation will bring the transparency and accountability we need to make sure this issue is resolved."
The Department of Corrections will now go back and calculate exactly how early each prisoner was released and, depending on the number of days, have them serve the rest of their sentences either in work release or by sending them back to prison.
Republican State Sen. Mike Padden told the AP that he planned to convene hearings over how the problem occurred and why it wasn't dealt with in 2012.
"We will see what we can find out about this and whether any of these individuals have committed crimes and what crimes they committed when they should have been in prison," he said.