Senate votes unanimously for Corrections reform bill, prompted by early-release scandal

OLYMPIA – The Washington Senate voted unanimously Monday for a bill that makes sweeping reforms to the Department of Corrections in the wake of last year’s early-release scandal.

Senate Bill 5294, sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, enacts recommendations made by the Senate Law and Justice Committee last year following a months-long investigation into the early release of some 3,000 prisoners.

The early releases, of prisoners convicted of armed crimes and sexual violence, averaged 59 days, but some prisoners were released as much as two years ahead of schedule. At least two deaths and numerous other crimes have been linked to prisoners who should have been behind bars at the time.

Though the Senate’s decision to investigate was a matter of partisan controversy last year, the 49-0 vote offers a general recognition of the serious and systemic management problems within the state prisons agency, Padden said. The bill now moves to the House for consideration.

“This was one of the worst management failures in the history of Washington state government,” Padden said. “This was no mere computer glitch. Ultimately people were responsible for what happened.”

Padden noted that the Department of Corrections failed to adequately test the computer systems that calculate the length of prisoners’ sentences when new software came online in 2002. But the error was compounded ten years later, when a truck driver double-checked DOC’s calculations and within five minutes determined that a man imprisoned for stabbing his son was due to be released too soon. Though he notified DOC of the problem, a software fix was repeatedly delayed for the next three years, and the early releases continued.

Nearly half of the early releases occurred after DOC learned its computers were calculating sentences incorrectly.

The measure clearly states that the primary duty of the Department of Corrections is to protect public safety. It also:

  • Creates an independent “ombuds” office to respond to complaints from workers, prisoners and their families, and to advocate for reforms to management systems.
  • Strengthens the state whistleblower program, and requires the state Office of Financial Management to report on the reasons the program has failed DOC employees.
  • Prohibits the state attorney general’s office from negotiating settlements with whistleblowers that bar them from future state employment.
  • Requires an audit by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee of DOC’s records and information-technology departments.
  • Mandates that DOC hand-calculate prisoners’ sentences if it has any reason to believe its computers are giving faulty results.
  • Reinforces state law that says the governor’s office has ultimate responsibility for the agencies it controls.

The investigation was one of the most extensive ever conducted by the Legislature. Using the Legislature’s rarely utilized subpoena authority, it reviewed some 100,000 pages of documents, collected sworn statements from 27 witnesses, and interviewed 13 witnesses in public session, under oath. A report of approximately 1,000 pages was released last May.

“This unanimous vote for the reforms recommended by the Senate investigation affirms what I already knew,” said Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, the committee vice chair who helped lead last year’s investigation.  “The vote vindicates our independent investigation that dug for the truth and developed recommendations to make sure this tragic breakdown in public safety never happens again.”

Although a concurrent investigation by the governor’s office pinned the blame on mid-level employees and largely exonerated the agency’s upper managers, the Senate’s independent investigation concluded the problems started at the top. DOC managers knew about the early-release issue, some in great detail, yet software fixes were delayed as they diverted resources to a still-unfinished computer project. The governor’s office, meanwhile, failed to recognize red flags of management turmoil at the agency, despite its legal obligation to provide oversight.

Padden observed that that other cases demonstrate DOC’s lack of responsiveness to internal complaints, and make a strong argument for improving whistleblower protections.

“Today’s vote validates the work we did last year,” Padden said. “Those of who serve in the Legislature understand that the buck doesn’t stop in the middle.”