OLYMPIA – A last-minute House decision to kill a crucial Department of Corrections reform bill just as the Legislature was preparing to leave town June 30 is prompting Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, to call on Gov. Jay Inslee to publicly declare his support for the measure.
“Now, more than ever, it is important for the governor to let the public and members of his own party know that he supports reform at the Department of Corrections,” said Padden, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “This bill was prompted by one of the most tragic cases of mismanagement in the history of Washington state government, and the governor has said he is as interested as we are in making sure it never happens again.
“Lucky thing we have another chance to pass the bill. The moment the governor declares his support, I am sure the roadblocks will come down, and we can turn the page on this sorry episode. The Legislature has done the work. All we need now is for the governor to make a public statement.”
The troubling case that prompted the Legislature’s attention will be highlighted at a work session of the Senate Law and Justice Committee Tuesday. Some 3,000 violent and dangerous inmates were released before their sentences had run their course, and many went on to commit new crimes when they should have been behind bars. At least two deaths have been linked to inmates who were released early.
Even worse, Corrections learned its computers had been programmed incorrectly in 2012, but it chose to continue releasing prisoners early until a fix could be completed. That fix was delayed three years. More than a third of the releases took place after DOC was notified of the error.
An exhaustive investigation by Padden’s committee last year revealed that the problems started at the top, as upper managers diverted resources to a still-unfinished computer project, while others who should have sounded the alarm displayed a remarkable lack of curiosity. This year’s reform bill, SB 5952, enacts recommendations made by the committee investigation.
Representatives of the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections have been asked to testify at Tuesday’s work session about steps they have taken to fix the agency’s systemic management problems. The governor’s office has so far declined the committee’s invitation to appear. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. in Senate Hearing Room 4.
Although the Senate passed the DOC reform bill and a predecessor version of the measure three times this year, House leaders have not permitted a vote to take place on the House floor. The House was expected to vote on the bill June 30, as the Legislature prepared to adjourn for the year, and if the Legislature concluded its business that night, the House’s inaction would have killed the bill. However, the Legislature remained in session to deal with a critical water-rights issue, giving the House further opportunity to pass the measure.
“This bill deserves full and honest legislative debate,” Padden said. “Those who oppose reform deserve a chance to make their arguments in public, just as the citizens of Washington deserve a chance to hold them accountable. We know the bill will enjoy broad support from Republicans and Democrats alike when it comes to the House floor – we have passed it three times in the Senate this year with only a handful of dissenting votes.
“But the governor is an essential part of this equation. When this problem was made public a year-and-a-half ago, he assured the state he would get to the bottom of it. This must have been painful for him, because the worst part of the problem occurred on his watch. Now he has an opportunity to follow through, by making it clear to the Legislature that the problems at DOC really are a top concern for his administration.”
When the governor publicly revealed the early releases at a news conference Dec. 22, 2015, he announced his own investigation. Although this investigation helped establish some of the facts of the case, it failed to examine the role played by the agency’s upper managers or the responsibility of the governor’s office to oversee the agencies it controls, as is required by state law. The limited scope of the governor’s investigation led it to blame middle managers and other officials, some of whom resigned or were demoted. One demotion was later overturned on appeal by the state Personnel Resources Board, which observed that the decision to delay the software fix was a collective responsibility of agency managers.
The Senate’s independent investigation, meanwhile, took a broader approach and considered the responsibility of upper management. Unlike the governor’s investigation, the Senate identified numerous management failures that contributed to the early releases. The committee produced a thousand-page report that made recommendations for reform. Those recommendations were the basis for this year’s reform bill. Key reforms included in the current version of the bill are:
- Establishing that the agency’s primary duty is the protection of public safety.
- Creating an independent “ombuds” program to deal with complaints from DOC employees, inmates and the families of inmates and victims.
- Mandating that the Department of Corrections hand-calculate sentences when it has any reason to believe its computers are giving incorrect results.
- Requiring DOC to produce an annual report on the backlog of computer fixes being processed by its information technology department.
- Requiring a performance audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee of Corrections information technology and records departments,
- Establishing new processes for the review of sentences, launching a study of sentence simplification, and creating a legislative task force on sentencing changes.
- Requiring a performance audit of the state whistleblower program to determine whether it meets the needs of DOC employees.