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After Early Release Scandal, Inslee Appoints Agency Veteran To Lead Corrections

Washington State Department of Corrections
File photo of a tower at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has named Stephen Sinclair as the state's new secretary of Corrections.

Washington state has a new secretary of Corrections. Stephen Sinclair has been with the department for 28 years. Most recently he was in charge of the prison division. He was previously the superintendent of the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla.???

Gov. Jay Inslee said, “We found the right person for the job.” He also praised Sinclair as someone who’s willing to look for innovative ways to keep people from returning to prison. ?? “We don’t want reoffenders, when they come out we want them to be done with their criminal history, not just sort of a halftime,” Inslee said. ??

About one-third of Washington inmates return to prison within three years.

As of 2013, Washington had the highest property crime rate in the country. In 2015, Inslee tried and failed to pass through the legislature an overhaul of how repeat property offenders are sentenced. In return for less prison time, the state would have required mandatory supervision and, where appropriate, substance abuse treatment for burglars and auto thieves.

A report by the Council for State Governments at the time estimated Washington could save more than $200 million and reduce the prison population by nearly 1,000 inmates if it implemented this approach.???

The announcement that Sinclair will become secretary of Corrections came the same day Inslee signed bipartisan legislation to allow prison inmates to receive associate college degrees and training through expanded partnerships with community and technical colleges. ??

“Inmates hopefully can get some two-year degrees so that they can work rather than going back to burglarizing houses in our neighborhoods,” Inslee said at a bill signing ceremony.??

Sinclair’s appointment follows the resignation in February of 2016 of another agency veteran, then-Secretary Dan Pacholke. He stepped down in the midst of two investigations into the early release of nearly 3,000 inmates over a 13-year period -- a mistake that resulted in two deaths and was attributed to a computer programming error. ??

An outside investigation commissioned by Inslee, a Democrat, found that the sentencing error was first flagged in 2012, but not fixed because of a “calamity of errors” including bad legal advice, indifference to public safety and bureaucratic inertia.

In May of 2016, Washington Senate Republicans released the results of a second investigation. That report singled out former Secretary of Corrections Bernie Warner, who resigned in September 2015 to take a job in the private sector, as having “played a major role in the debacle.” ??

In a statement released Tuesday by the governor’s office, Sinclair said: “I am strongly committed to ensuring the agency continues to emphasize safety and security for staff and incarcerated people.”

Republican state Senator Mike Padden, chair of the Law and Justice committee, praised the choice of Sinclair to lead the agency.

"I think he has the potential to be a strong leader which they desperately need," said Padden, who's been a critic of the Department of Corrections.

Padden added that he felt it took Inslee too long to find a permanent secretary.

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."