Corrections reform bill clears Senate committee, prompted by early releases, mismanagement

OLYMPIA – A bill prompted by last year’s early-release scandal at the state Department of Corrections cleared the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday.

Senate Bill 5294 enacts key reforms recommended by the committee following a months-long investigation into the improper early release of some 3,000 prisoners convicted of violent and dangerous crimes. The releases, spanning a 13-year period, continued three years after Department of Corrections employees learned of the problem and attempted to flag it to the attention of their supervisors. At least two deaths and numerous other crimes have been linked to inmates who should have been behind bars.

The bill now moves to the Senate Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.

“This bill is prompted by one of the most tragic management failures in the history of Washington state government,” said committee chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “Our investigation revealed that the problems started at the top. We need to make sure nothing like it ever happens again.”

The Senate bill establishes firmly that the primary duty of the Department of Corrections is to protect public safety, that the governor’s office is responsible for the agencies under its control, and that the concerns of front-line workers at the agency may not be ignored. Among its key provisions, the bill:

  • Creates an independent “ombuds” office to respond to complaints from workers, prisoners and their families, and advocate for reform of management procedures.
  • Reinforces the whistleblower program overseen by the state auditor’s office, and requires the Office of Financial Management to review the reasons the program has failed DOC employees.
  • Requires the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee to conduct a performance audit of DOC’s records and information technology departments, and assess the status of a still-unfinished computer project that diverted management’s attention from the early-release issue.
  • Requires DOC to hand-calculate prisoners’ release dates when the agency has any reason to believe its computer systems are calculating prisoners’ sentences improperly.

“The software problem was the easy fix,” said committee vice chair Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, who helped lead last year’s investigation. “The greater challenge is in changing the agency culture. We need to make sure that public safety comes first.”

The committee last year utilized the Legislature’s rarely-used subpoena power to interview witnesses under oath. Its independent investigation established that upper managers should have recognized the problem and taken action, and that the governor’s office ignored numerous indicators of management problems at DOC. The committee’s approximately 1,000-page report offered a stark contrast to a report issued by the governor’s office, which blamed mid-level employees, largely absolved upper managers, and did not examine the failure of the governor’s office to supervise the agency.

For more information about the bill and the mismanagement revealed by the Senate investigation, click here.