DOC leader talks about mistakenly releasing felons early

By: KIRO 7 STAFF

Updated:

A second offender has been connected to a killing after a Department of Corrections failure released thousands of felons early. That offender should have still been in prison when the shooting death occurred, state officials said.


KEY DEVELOPMENTS:

  • 3,200 offenders may have been released early
  • Problems dates back to 2002.
  • Brought to attention in 2012, but not corrected.
  • A fix was delayed 16 times.
  • 2 felons released early linked to fatal cases after release
  • Software fix still not in place; DOC reviewing paperwork by hand

Jeremiah Smith is accused of murdering a 17-year-old boy, Cesar Medina, outside a store that sells e-cigarettes and does tattoos. The shooting happened 11 days after Smith was released early from prison for another felony. Smith should have been released three months after he went free, state officials said. 

Three days before Christmas, Governor Jay Inslee acknowledged that Washington state prisons released thousands of felons earlier than they were scheduled to be released, and the problem went on for years even though the problem was identified in 2012.

As many as 3,200 felons may have been released early over 13 years, and all those released had enhancements for special sentences, state officials said. A sentence enhancement gives harsher punishments to felons.

The problem was in computer software that did not give the correct terms for Washington inmates, state officials said.

DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke, who oversaw the agency when some of the offenders were released incorrectly, called the situation and “unforgiveable error.”

The other inmate linked to a fatal case after an incorrect early release is Robert T. Jackson. Police say he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he crashed his Lexus into a utility box in Bellevue on Nov. 11, killing his 35-year-old girlfriend, Lindsey Hill.

"We are deeply saddened to learn about the early release errors and our hearts go out to all that have been affected," Hill's brother, Jeff, told KIRO 7. "Our family is going through an enormous amount of pain because of the unnecessary loss of our daughter, sister and mother of two young boys. Lindsay was a kind hearted young woman who should still be alive today and nothing we can say or do will bring her back. She was with us for 35 years and that wasn't long enough. Please pray for healing in our family."

DOC and Inslee’s office continues to blame a computer “glitch,” though it has not been made clear how many people failed to address the problem over several years.

A computer software fix is still not in place. Starting on Dec. 22, DOC stopped the release of all offenders within the group of offenders affected by the enhancement-sequencing error and said hand calculations would be done to ensure offenders are being released on correct dates.

New documents released after public records request

Documents released late Wednesday by the state Department of Corrections show that the attorney general's office advised the agency in 2012 that it wasn't necessary to manually recalculate prisoners' sentences after a software coding error that ultimately led to the erroneous early release of thousands of prisoners was brought to light.

The emails, released in response to the AP’s public records request, show that the assistant attorney general assigned to the agency wrote in December 2012 that from a "risk management perspective," a recalculation by hand wasn't necessary because a software reprogramming fix would eventually take care of the issue.

In a written statement issued late Wednesday, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said that 2012 advice "was deeply flawed and failed to emphasize the urgency of addressing this critical issue."

Ferguson had not yet taken office when the emails were sent from Assistant Attorney General Ronda D. Larson; previous Attorney General Rob McKenna was serving his final month in that office. Larson did not immediately respond to an email from the AP seeking comment.

Ferguson said he has directed his staff to conduct a thorough review of the internal processes that led to that advice and which "failed to raise such a critical issue to the highest levels of our office."

He also said his office would review records for other advice related to the matter dating back to 2002, and he noted his office would "cooperate fully" with the independent investigation that is occurring at the Department of Corrections. Two retired federal prosecutors have been brought in to conduct an independent investigation to determine why the error occurred and went unfixed for more than 13 years.

Since the Dec. 22 announcement that as many as 3,200 offenders were wrongly released, more than two dozen who need to serve additional time are back in custody. The agency continues to review additional releases.

DOC was first alerted to the error in December 2012 after a victim's family learned of a prisoner's imminent release. The family did its own calculations and found that the prisoner, Curtis Robinson, was being credited with too much time for good behavior.

Assistant attorney general: Waiting for a fix "should be sufficient"

In the emails released Wednesday, Larson said that while a hand calculation needed to be done in the Robinson case, waiting for a programming fix for the other cases "should be sufficient."

"Although this will result in offenders being released earlier than the law allows for the time being, until OMNI gets fixed, the DOC has been releasing them earlier for a decade (since the In re King decision), and a few more months is not going to make that much difference in light of this (with the exception of Robinson's case)," Larson wrote to DOC employee Wendy Stigall on Dec. 7, 2012. "Furthermore, this is something that the DOC has identified internally, rather than something that is being forced upon it by an outside entity such as the court. It is therefore not so urgent as to require the large input of personnel resources to do hand-calculations of hundreds of sentences."

Corrections officials this week acknowledged that the fix was delayed 16 times since December 2012 and ultimately was never done. A fix to the software problem is expected early next month and corrections officials say they continue to do manual recalculations for prisoners who are currently in prison and whose sentences may have been affected.

The mistake followed a 2002 state Supreme Court ruling — the King decision referenced in Larson's email — that requires the Department of Corrections to apply good-behavior credits earned in county jail to state prison sentences. But the programming fix ended up giving prisoners with sentencing enhancements too much so-called good time credit.

Sentencing enhancements include additional prison time given for certain crimes, such those using firearms. Under state law, prisoners who get extra time for sentencing enhancements cannot have it reduced for good behavior.

Former Attorney General Rob McKenna on Larson's action

Asked why he didn’t know about Larson’s e-mail to the DOC, former Attorney General Rob McKenna responded: “Well, she didn't tell her supervisors, and it never made it to my desk and to the people who worked for me in headquarters.

“Just like they apparently didn't notify (then) governor (Chris) Gregoire and her staff. I talked to her senior staff and they didn't know about it either.”

McKenna’s last month in office was Dec. 2012, the same month Larson sent her e-mail. Gregoire also had her last month in office that December.

“Folks were hurt, who shouldn't have been because the system broke down,” McKenna said.

McKenna believes the state's legal liability will be large.

“It's going to be significant, especially in cases involving deaths the liability runs into the millions of dollars per incident and these cases will probably continue for a few years,” he said

McKenna says there must be consequences for those found to be responsible for the lapse.

“If you don't have consequences, where people lose their jobs if they are in fact responsible, the system, the department just doesn't learn. They just think well, dodged, that bullet.”

Governor Inslee has indicated any discipline will wait until after an outside investigation is complete.

That investigation begins in the first week of 2016.

Information from Associated Press reporter Rachel La Corte is included in this report.



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