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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."

Hash Marks On Cell Wall Don't Cut It In Era Of Complex Sentencing

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke testifies before a Senate committee on January 16, 2016. He says complex sentencing laws means the era of inmates tracking their sentence with hash marks on the wall are long gone.

Washington prison officials have said a computer programming error led to the accidental early release of more than 3,000 inmates over 13 years. Documents obtained by public radio reveal that a decade ago sentencing calculation errors plagued a major IT upgrade.

The situation highlights the complexity of Washington’s sentencing system.

In July of 2005, the Washington Department of Corrections was six years into a troubled IT project. The upgrade to a new, web-based inmate tracking system called OMNI was behind schedule and over budget. An independent quality assurance report that month noted that half of the most serious defects in the OMNI project related to Washington’s “complex sentence structure.”

Eventually a new contractor was brought in. OMNI finally launched in 2008.

Complex calculations and multiple factors

Today, OMNI is the IT backbone of the Department of Corrections. Danielle Hedblum is with the agency’s records department. She demonstrated how the staff verifies the correct release date for an inmate who was prematurely let out.

“I’m going to do what we call a hand calculation because I want to find out what his new window is,” Hedblum said.

Hedblum said hand calculations are not always easy, especially when the inmate is serving time for multiple crimes. All sorts of factors come into play: consecutive versus concurrent prison terms, credit for days served in county jail, the rate at which the inmate earns time off their sentence for good behavior, the portions of the sentence that good conduct can apply to, penalties for bad behavior. And the list goes on.

Hedblum said verifying an inmate’s date of release can -- in the most complicated cases -- take hours and four or five reviews to make sure it’s correct.

“It’s very complicated,” Hedblum said.

In fact, she said Washington has one of the most complex sentencing structures in the country.

'Adjustments based on good science and good practice'

Secretary of Corrections Dan Pacholke seconds that.

“We’re well beyond the days when you can put tick marks on a wall and know when you can get out of prison,” he said.

Pacholke said complexity is one price for having what’s viewed as a “progressive” sentencing structure. He noted Washington has been ranked 42nd in the nation in its rate of incarceration.

“I think we’ve been a state that’s tried to be out in front on smart on crime and I think we’ve made adjustments based on good science and good practice around the country,” Pacholke said. “And when you add them up in totality it’s just a lot of change.”

Changes made by the legislature, by voters and by the courts. The Department of Corrections tracks changes to Washington’s sentencing structure using a master spreadsheet. Over the years it’s grown to more than 3,000 lines and more than 60 columns of information.

Pacholke said making sure all those changes get into OMNI and tested for accuracy requires time and resources.

“I don’t know that we’ve been strong enough around the cost associated with implementing changes from an IT perspective or the amount of ramp up time it takes in order to implement them in a comprehensive way,” he said.

A legacy error

Prison officials say the error that led to the early release of 3,200 inmates was actually a problem that was carried over from the old, legacy computer system. It was discovered in 2012 by a victim’s family, but for reasons still unclear it wasn’t fixed by the department.

“Unfortunately, I kind of saw this coming” Democrat Roger Goodman said. He chairs the House Public Safety Committee and used to be the executive director of the state’s Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

“The sentencing laws are so complex that a computer error was probably going to happen,” Goodman said. “The problem here is that once they found the computer error they didn’t do anything about it. So that’s a management problem.”

Goodman said the only way to really simplify sentencing is to start over from scratch -- which is not something he’s advocating. Washington’s last big sentencing overhaul was in the early 1980s. That’s when the state moved from a parole system to fixed sentences.

Former prosecutor and law professor David Boerner helped write those sentencing laws. Today he chairs Washington’s sentencing commission.

“The purpose of sentencing is not simplicity,” he said. “The purpose of sentencing is to impose just punishment.”

Boerner said people can debate what just punishment is, but he cautioned against simplicity in sentencing for the sake of simplicity.

“It’s law and law is complex,” he said.

‘You need somebody to translate for you'

So if not hash marks on the cell wall, how do inmates track their sentences?

“You have to invest in a calculator,” former inmate Bob Davis said. He was serving a sentence for assault with a deadly weapon when the Department of Corrections accidentally let him out a few weeks early.

Davis said he has a handout from the Department that tries to explain how release dates are calculated.

“It’s like hieroglyphics,m” he said. “I mean it’s like you need somebody to translate for you because it really doesn’t make a lot of sense on how they do it.”

And Davis is a former general contractor with some college education. The average inmate only made it to 10th grade.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."