State lawmakers grill DOC chief over computer glitch that led to early release of prisoners

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- On the first day of the 2016 legislative session Monday, lawmakers wasted no time in grilling the Department of Corrections secretary over a computer glitch that has caused thousands of inmates to be released early.

The DOC chief told lawmakers they will have a new software in place to fix the glitch by Tuesday.

The glitch started in 2002 when a state Supreme Court decision required the agency to change the way they did some of their sentencing calculations. In that process, something went wrong but no one caught it until 2012.

“On behalf of the Department of Corrections, I apologize for this tragic error,” Department of Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke said.

About 3,200 inmates have been released early since 2002.

“In 2012 of December a victim’s family concerned about the imminent release of a defendant alerts DOC of his release date,” Pacholke said.

That’s how DOC first learned of the sentencing miscalculation in 2012. Since then they’ve had 16 failed chances to fix the software glitch.

“You clearly had some employees who knowingly permitted inmates to be released early. What does it say about the culture of DOC?” asked state Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place.

“The department certainly needs to be held accountable for this error and the investigation will certainly share who knew, how far up the chain it went, and why there was such a delay,” Pacholke said.

The department has yet to explain the delay as they try to remedy a broken system.

“We are arresting offenders and detaining them on a daily basis,” Pacholke said.

The number of inmates who committed crimes after their early release is growing. Ricardo Ruiz is now accused of holding up a convenient store at gunpoint and shooting at a Yakima Sheriff’s deputy.

Jeremiah Smith is accused of killing a teenager in Spokane.

And in Bellevue Robert Jackson is facing vehicular homicide charges. Police say he drove his girlfriend’s car drunk, killing her in a crash.

“For me there is nothing more difficult than to call a mother who has lost a child and inform them that the failure of the government had impacted their child's life. I’ve done this twice in the last few weeks,” Pacholke said.

It’s a complicated balancing act. How to keep the public safe versus not stripping away the rights of those offenders abiding by society’s rules after getting out of prison early.

“It’s one of the most certainly egregious management failures in state government,” Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said.

Lawmakers not only called the error egregious, some questioned the investigation itself, saying the governor’s office should release the entire process to the Legislature and not just the findings of the investigation.

“If he is not investigating himself, that he will give public all the information, if he will do that, I am not so concerned about a cover-up,” O’Ban said.

Pacholke says he personally did not find out about the error until December 2015 after taking his position in October of last year. The governor launched an investigation headed by two former federal prosecutors. The Governor’s Office told Q13 News Monday afternoon that the investigation will be open and transparent to the public.