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The high cost of inaction

The high cost of inaction

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Editor’s note: Today’s editorial appeared originally in The Columbian. Editorial content from other publications is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.

Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke says he’s sorry. Gov. Jay Inslee says there’s been a horrible wrong. But the fact is a Bellevue woman died Nov. 11 while riding in a car with her boyfriend, who by all rights should have still been in prison.

The death of 35-year-old Lindsay Hill is just one of the consequences of a recently discovered error that resulted in the inappropriately early release of as many as 3,200 Washington convicts. The error, apparently undiscovered for 10 years, illustrates the limits of technology and challenges us to do better.

Here’s what happened: In 2002, the state Supreme Court ordered the Department of Corrections to apply good-behavior credits earned in county jail to state prison sentences. To do that, the state changed its computer software. However, the programming fix ended up giving prisoners with sentencing enhancements too much good-behavior credit, according to The Associated Press. Sentencing enhancements include additional time given for certain crimes, such as those committed using a firearm or near a school.

The error wasn’t discovered until December 2012, when a victim’s family learned of a prisoner’s imminent release, did its own calculation, and realized he was being credited with too much good time.

But then — and here’s the most troubling part of the problem — corrections officials repeatedly delayed fixing the faulty software. Ultimately, it was never done.

It should be noted that this isn’t directly the fault of corrections Secretary Pacholke or Gov. Inslee, neither of whom were in their current jobs when the error was made or discovered. It’s to their credit that rather than being covered up, the error was publicly announced this month.

By then, however, an estimated 3,200 convicts had benefited from an undeserved early release. Most of the errors were 100 days or less. So only a few dozen will need to return to prison, given a different Supreme Court ruling that credits time out of prison to the sentences of those released early. Five are already back in custody.

Inslee has appointed two retired federal prosecutors to independently investigate the affair. They will be asked to determine both why the error occurred and also why it went unfixed for more than 13 years.

Meanwhile, the public will have to deal with the potential fallout of additional crimes committed by those who haven’t fully paid their debts to society.

Lindsay Hill’s death is the most prominent example thus far. Hill was riding in a car with her boyfriend, Robert Terrance Jackson, 38, who had been mistakenly released from prison on Aug. 10 after being convicted of robbery, with a sentencing enhancement for using a deadly weapon. His true release date would have been Dec. 6.

Instead, he now sits in a King County jail in lieu of $2 million bail, facing new charges of vehicular homicide and felony hit-and-run.

Corrections officials said Monday they also are looking for another improperly released prisoner who has allegedly committed new crimes, but they did not release details.

Meanwhile there are apologies being made to Hill’s family, including her two young sons. “There is nothing that can right this horrible wrong,” Inslee said in a written statement. “We must make sure nothing like this happens again.”

We’ll be eagerly awaiting the independent report and the news that the sentencing software has been fixed.


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