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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."

'Incompetence' And 'Inexplicable Failure' Led To Early Release Of Inmates

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Governor Jay Inslee announces the results of an investigation into the early release of nearly 3,000 prison inmates, resulting in two deaths.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has released a 52-page investigative report by two former federal prosecutors, Carl Blackstone and Robert Westinghouse, into the early release of nearly 3,000 prison inmates over a 13-year period. Those releases resulted in two deaths.

Blackstone said a series of factors contributed to the Department of Corrections not fixing the sentencing error when it was first flagged in 2012. They include: bad legal advice, indifference to public safety and bureaucratic inertia.

“The list goes on and on and on. That’s incompetence,” Blackstone said. “Again it’s not intentional, it’s not malicious. It’s just a calamity of errors.”

Inslee compared the early release situation to a prison break and said he’s in the process of taking personnel actions against individuals involved.

“When somebody’s climbing over the wall, we’d send the bloodhounds for them and pull the fire alarm,” Inslee said. “That did not happen here and it’s inexcusable. And that’s why there’s going to be accountability for the people involved and that’s why we’re going to fix this system which we’re in the process of doing.”

Already three state officials have resigned, including Secretary of Corrections Dan Pacholke.

Senate Republicans immediately pronounced the investigation incomplete. Senator Mike Padden chairs the Law and Justice Committee. He feels the governor’s investigation is letting former top officials off the hook.

“So many of these things it’s the front-line people that kind get thrown under the bus and while they have some culpability and responsibility, I think that there’s more to the story than that,” Padden said.

Padden is leading a separate investigation into the early releases and holding hearings.

Former Department of Corrections staffers testified Thursday before the Senate Law and Justice Committee. They described systemic problems within the Department of Corrections on IT issues.

The problem was first discovered in 2012, but went unfixed until January of this year after a new Chief Information Officer was hired and became aware of the issue. Investigators interviewed 58 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, but found no evidence that anyone inside the Department of Corrections was aware of the programming error prior to 2012. That's when a victim's family brought the issue to the attention of agency officials.

However, after 2012 a fix to the problem was delayed 16 times. Here are findings and recommendations from the report:


  • The early release of inmates was "caused by a series of errors coupled with bureaucratic incompetence, systemic failures of process and management, and an inexplicable failure both on an institutional and individual level."
  • "The failure to correctly calculate offender early release dates was not intentional or malicious."
  • Key individuals within the Department of Corrections were made aware of the sentencing calculation error, including an assistant secretary and the agency's risk manager but, "None of these individuals took any further steps to address the problem or to follow up to be certain that the computer error had been corrected."
  • IT Business Manager David Dunnington "was primarily responsible for repeatedly delaying this project. He was unable to explain the delays, at least in part because he failed to make any record of the reasons for the delays."
  • "The advice tendered to DOC employees by the Attorney General's office was serious flawed" and "appears to have played a part in DOC's lethargic response to this problem." 
  • "DOC failed to follow its normal protocol to hand-calculate offender release dates when errors were discovered."
  • "The IT group lacked a meaningful system for prioritizing work. The most glaring flaw in the system was the failure to set priorities based on an assessment of the impact a particular defect or enhancement would have on public safety."
  • "It appears that priorities were set largely based on whoever 'squeaked' the loudest. This 'squeaky wheel' phenomenon was a poor substitute for a logical ordering of work based on its importance..."
  • "Neither DOC Secretary Dan Pacholke nor his predecessor, Bernie Warner, was aware of the offender release date issue prior to mid-December 2015."
  • "Neither Governor Jay Inslee nor members of his staff was aware of the early release prior to mid-December 2015."


  • "All Attorney General Opinions should be subject to supervisory review and approval."
  • "DOC should restructure its IT governance process."
  • "DOC should appoint an Outside Monitor" to oversee restructuring.
  • "Offender release dates should be hand calculated pending a sentencing-related fix in the computer system."
  • "DOC Assistant Secretaries must be notified of any system-wide errors affecting sentencing, release or supervision of offenders."
  • "A second programmer capable of fixing sentencing errors should be available." (during the time in question, DOC relied on one programmer working for a contractor)
  • "DOC management should emphasize to all employees that its core mission is public safety."
  • "DOC should create an ombudsman position." (legislation is already pending in the Washington Senate)

DOC Fast Facts

  • $1.87 billion budget
  • 17,000 offenders
  • 8,250 employees
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."