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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

3,200 Washington Inmates Released Early Because Of Computer Glitch

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke addresses reporters as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on during a news conference to announce the accidental early release of 3,200 inmates over a 13 year period.

As many as 3,200 Washington inmates were released early because of a computer glitch that went unfixed for 13 years.

Governor Jay Inslee made that announcement at a news conference Tuesday during which he vowed to "fix this, fix it fast, and fix it right."

The computer calculating error affected about 3 percent of the inmates released since July 2002. All were felons who had been convicted with a sentencing enhancement--for example, for using a firearm in the commission of their crime. The median number of days the inmates got out early was 49; at least one inmate was set to be released 600 days early.

The computer coding error dates to 2002 after the Washington Supreme Court ruled that the state had to credit inmates for "good time" earned while in county jail. The problem was first discovered in 2012 when a victim's family brought the issue to the attention of Department of Corrections officials. A service request to fix the problem was filed, but the coding error still went uncorrected.

"For reasons we still don't yet fully understand that fix never happened," Inslee's legal counsel Nick Brown said. "The computer update was scheduled, postponed and rescheduled numerous times following the discovery of this problem in 2012."

Inslee has retained two former federal prosecutors to conduct an internal investigation.

"That this problem was allowed to continue to exist for 13 years is deeply disappointing," Inslee said. "It is totally unacceptable and, frankly, it is maddening."

So far five former inmates who were released early have been have been taken back into custody and the Department of Corrections is looking for two more. The agency is still working to identify people who benefited from the glitch. So far it's identified 148 premature releases since June. However, many of those who were released early will not be locked up again because they earned credit for days they've been out of prison without running afoul of the law.

"I want to acknowledge the anger this brings to so many people," Department of Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke said. "The agency should be held accountable for this breach ... it's an unforgivable error."

Neither the governor's office or the Department of Corrections could immediately say whether any of the inmates released early committed new crimes during the period when they should have been incarcerated.

Inslee has ordered a halt on releases of inmates with good behavior credit and sentence enhancements until Corrections can hand calculate and verify as correct the release date of each prisoner. The computer fix is scheduled to be in place by January 7, 2016.

"It's very troubling," said Republican state Senator Mike Padden, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. He said his committee will hold hearings into the issue when the legislature reconvenes in January.