Senate committee chair offers new version of Corrections reform bill

OLYMPIA – A new version of this year’s Department of Corrections reform bill will be heard in the Senate Law and Justice Committee Tuesday, as Chair Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, seeks middle ground on one of the session’s biggest issues.

The new version of Senate Bill 5294, sponsored by Padden, adopts elements of proposals passed by the Senate and by the House Public Safety Committee. The committee will take testimony on the bill at 8 a.m. in Senate Hearing Room 2.

“We appreciate the hard work done by the House to craft a bill that is acceptable to all parties,” Padden said. “We hope this new version of the bill will help us accomplish a goal we can agree on — putting the Department of Corrections on the right track.”

The reform measure is prompted by last year’s Senate investigation into the early releases of thousands of violent and dangerous felons. Some 3,000 offenders were released an average 59 days early during a 13-year period starting in 2002.

No hardware or software failure was involved in the early releases. Prisoners were released early because of a Department of Corrections’ misinterpretation of a 2002 court decision about the way time served in county jails should be credited. Corrections provided improper instructions to computer programmers.

Making matters worse, Corrections learned of the problem in 2012, yet continued releasing prisoners early for another three years until the problem was fixed. More than one-third of the early releases took place during this period. At least 29 crimes, including two deaths, have been attributed to inmates who should have been behind bars. The Senate investigation established that top Corrections officials had enough information to make inquiries and take action, but agency management systems failed.

Key provisions of the bill include:

  • 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.

Padden’s bill passed the Senate March 6 by a vote of 49-0. A much-reworked bill was passed by the House Public Safety Committee, but it did not receive a vote on the House floor.

The new version of the bill adopts House language on the creation of the ombuds program. But it adds language to ensure the sentence-simplification task force will study options that do not reduce punishment. The Senate also insists on a provision prohibiting the state from settling complaints from whistleblowers by barring them from future state employment.

“We hope these modest changes will result in a bill we all can support,” Padden said. “Partisan politics really has no place in this discussion. This was one of the worst cases of mismanagement in state history, if not the worst, and the Legislature cannot let it go unaddressed.”

In one death case, a felon released four months early killed his girlfriend in a Bellevue drunk-driving accident. Robert Terrance Jackson has been sentenced to life imprisonment for felony hit and run and vehicular homicide. In the other, Jeremiah Smith, released three months early, faces a murder trial in the 2015 Spokane shooting death of Caesar Medina. Families of both victims have filed claims against the state, raising the possibility of state liability.