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Computer Glitch Causes Mistaken Early Release of More Than 3,000 Inmates

The Department of Corrections (DOC) in Washington State has come under fire after a computer glitch in its system led to the early release of more than 3,000 inmates in the state since 2002. The Department has been aware of the glitch since 2012.

Photo provided by The Olympian.

The computer glitch problem, which led to the early release of thousands of inmates, began in July of 2002 when a Washington State Supreme Court ruling required the Department of Corrections to apply good-behavior credits earned in county jail to state prison sentences.  This software change, however, ended up giving some inmates too many good-behavior credits, which in turn, led to unwarranted early releases.  The Associated Press reported that as many as 3,200 inmates were released early, while another 3,100 who are still incarcerated, had inaccurate release dates.

The software was supposed to apply good-behavior credits only to the regular part of the sentence, not the enhancement. 

The Seattle Times explained that the Department of Corrections planned to use the new software on certain inmates who had received “enhanced” sentences for crimes committed with a firearm, a deadly weapon, or certain sexual offenses.  For example, an additional five years might automatically be added to a sentence for the use of a firearm, or an additional two years for the use of a deadly weapon.  The software was supposed to apply good-behavior credits only to the regular part of the sentence, not the enhancement.  The system, however, incorrectly applied good-behavior credits to both the regular sentence and the enhancement – this gave inmates too much credit for time spent in county jail.

Although the computer glitch has altered prison release dates since 2002, the Department of Corrections was only notified of the problem in December of 2012 after a victim’s family questioned the unusually early release date of an inmate.  A timeline of events shows that while the Department of Corrections consulted with attorneys regarding the error and scheduled a fix, the fix was repeatedly delayed.

Further, it appears that after the Department of Corrections discovered the problem in 2012, the head of the agency was never notified.  Department Secretary Dan Pacholke took over as head of the agency in October of 2015 and was not aware of the problem until just a few weeks ago.  “How that did not rise up in the agency to the highest levels is not clear to me,” Pacholke said.

… Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said he was not aware of the problem until December of 2015.

In fact, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, said he was not aware of the problem until December of 2015.  Governor Inslee’s general counsel, Nicholas Brown, did not seem to have an answer as to why the computer glitch was never fixed.  “For reasons we still don’t yet fully understand, that fix never happened,” Brown said.  Governor Inslee described the situation as “totally unacceptable” and “maddening.”

According to Brown, most of the errors affected release dates by 100 days or less, and in some cases, inmates were released just a few days early.  At least one person who is still incarcerated, however, had a release date that was off by about 600 days.  Although thousands of inmates have been released prematurely, some of them will remain free.

Washington law requires that the state give day-for-day credit to prisoners who have been released early and have not broken any more laws.

Washington law requires that the state give day-for-day credit to prisoners who have been released early and have not broken any more laws.  This law will prevent the re-incarceration of offenders who have been free for several years.  However, inmates who have been released recently will likely have to return to prison.  As of January 1st, prison officials have returned thirty-one inmates to prison who were freed, but have not reached their corrected release date.

This type of mistake on behalf of the Department of Corrections is clearly one that can cause unrest within a community.  Former Department of Corrections Secretary, Bernie Warner, stated in an email that he understands the concern and will work to help law enforcement fix the problem.  “Obviously, an early release of an inmate from prison to the community is a serious public safety issue and I share the concerns of the Governor, DOC Secretary Pacholke, victim’s groups and other important law enforcement stakeholders,” Warner wrote.

True unrest, indeed, came when it was reported that one inmate who was mistakenly released early, had committed vehicular homicide.  Robert Terrance Jackson, Jr., was released on August 10th, though he should have remained incarcerated until December 6th.  The accident, which killed Jackson’s 35-year-old girlfriend, Lindsay Hill, occurred on November 11th.  As of December 29, 2015, the Department of Corrections had identified two mistakenly released inmates who have been accused of crimes since their release, one of whom has been charged with first-degree murder.

Because the Department knew of the computer glitch, yet failed to correct it for nearly four years, it is plausible that [some parties affected] could bring a negligence action against the DOC.

Washington’s Department Of Corrections could face legal challenges going forward. Because the Department knew of the computer glitch, yet failed to correct it for nearly four years, it is plausible that the family of Lindsay Hill, for example, could bring a negligence action against the DOC.

A negligence action requires: 1) a legal duty to prevent harm, 2) a breach of that duty, 3) causation (the breach of duty caused harm to the Plaintiff), and 4) damages.  In the situation being dealt with here, it could be argued that the Department Of Corrections is liable for negligence because it had – and continues to have – a duty to protect the public by taking steps to adequately secure prisoners.  The Department breached this duty because it failed to correct the computer glitch that it had been aware of since 2012.  This breach also caused harm to the family of Lindsay Hill which could have been avoided, had the computer glitch been fixed, and the Hill’s family suffered damages because they lost a loved one.  If the Hill family could prove these elements, it could bring a claim for negligence against the Department.

 [I]f it is discovered that some inmates have been mistakenly held beyond their release date, these inmates could bring an action for the tort of false imprisonment against the Department Of Corrections. 

Later, if it is discovered that some inmates have been mistakenly held beyond their release date, these inmates could bring an action for the tort of false imprisonment against the Department Of Corrections.  As it stands, however, only cases of inmates being released early have come to light.  These types of cases will not warrant an action for false imprisonment.

Since Governor Inslee discovered the computer glitch in late December, he, along with Brown and Pacholke have announced a series of actions to correct the problem.  They announced three corrections for the problem.

First, the software fix that has been delayed until now, is finally scheduled for early this month.  Second, Gov. Inslee ordered the halt of all releases of prisoners whose release dates could have been altered by the computer glitch until a hand calculation can be done for each prisoner.  Third, Gov. Inslee has retained two former federal prosecutors to conduct an investigation into the Department to determine why the glitch was never fixed, who knew about the problem, and why higher level administration within the Department was never notified until almost three years after the problem was initially discovered.

Despite [the] changes [proposed by Washington Governor Inslee], questions are still looming around the breach in the computer system.

Despite these changes, questions are still looming around the breach in the computer system. Governor Inslee, counselor Brown, and Corrections Secretary Pacholke will have to answer many questions before the public or the administration has faith in Washington’s Department of Corrections.  In a recent press conference, Pacholke offered his apologies to the Governor and the public.  “I’ve apologized to the governor personally on behalf of the Department of Corrections for this 13-year-error.  I want to offer that same apology to the pubic. It’s an unforgivable error,” Pacholke said.

Perhaps this serious glitch in Washington State’s computer system will encourage other states to review and upgrade the efficiency of their computer systems used in various correctional facilities.  Another mistake like the one made in Washington State could have irreversible repercussions and legal consequences not only on the correctional system, but on the community as a whole.

In 1994 North Carolina implemented a similar system to that in Washington, whereby prisoners can be awarded sentencing credits to reduce the amount of time served.  These credits come in four different forms – good time, gain time, earned time, and meritorious time.  Just as in Washington, only certain inmates in North Carolina are eligible to earn sentencing credits and both systems use a digital log.

Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor
About Kendra Alleyne, Associate Editor (17 Articles)
Kendra Alleyne is a third year law student and serves as an Associate Editor for the Campbell Law Observer. She is from Lynchburg, Virginia and graduated from Liberty University for a degree in Broadcast Journalism. Over the summer following her first year of law school, Kendra worked as a legal internship at Colon & Associates, where she is currently still interning. Kendra also serves as the Public Relations Chair for Campbell University’s Black Law Student Association.
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