DOC early release bill voted out of committee

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A bill to reform the Department of Corrections, drafted in response to the early release of around 3,000 prisoners over the last 13 years due to computer miscalculations, was voted unanimously out of the Public Safety committee on Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane calls for the Department of Corrections (DOC) to calculate release dates of prisoners manually if they believe there has been a computer error. It also requires the DOC to undergo a performance audit and annually report backlogs in the IT department with details on how they plan to fix issues they find.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland and chair of the Public Safety committee, sponsored amendments to remove the intent section of the bill as well as fine tune issues that were brought up by the Governor’s Office, the Department of Corrections and other concerned groups.

He said the bill is designed to solve sentencing errors before and after an inmate is in the Department of Corrections care. Part of the legislation includes worksheets for the courts to use along with their regular forms to increase accuracy of sentencing calculations.

“We have a very complex sentencing structure and it is so complex that we’ve had errors, errors that have resulted in harm to the public,” Goodman said. “So it’s important that we get ahead of this problem and prevent the errors from taking place in the first place.”

According to the Senate Justice committee’s report, many of the prisoners released early went on to commit felonies. One of those, Jeremiah Smith, will go on trial this summer for the killing of former Moses Lake resident Ceaser Medina in a tattoo parlor in Spokane, according to a report by the Spokesman-Review.

The bill also calls for the governor to ensure executive staff do not have conflicts of interest as well as increasing whistleblower protections for employees within the DOC. It would create an independent group, the Ombuds Advisory Council, to investigate complaints from inmates, family members and employees and report their findings to the governor and the legislature.

The Ombuds Council will include a Democrat and Republican from the legislator, a former inmate, two family members of current inmates, an independent expert criminal justice consultant, diverse community members with dispute resolution training, a Department of Corrections staff member and a professional negotiator.

Rep. Dave Hayes, R-Camano Island voted for the amendments and the bill, but expressed concerns the new requirements might be too heavy a burden for the Department of Corrections to fulfill.

“Some of the concerns always come down to how demanding is this bill going to be on the state agency and are those demands reasonable or not,” Hayes said.

He was also concerned the new Ombuds Council might have too much authority to start investigations. The bills calls for inmates who request investigations to first exhaust all their other resources before filing a complaint. According to the bill report, the Ombuds can start, stop or decline to pursue a complaint or investigation as they see fit.

He said the amendments addressed most of his concerns, but he would keep following the legislation as it moved through the next committees and then eventually onto the house floor.

The conversation around the Department of Corrections’ reforms was tinged with partisanship in the 2016 session, with both the Senate Republicans and the Governor’s office hiring independent consultants to investigate the early releases of prisoners and coming to similar, but slightly different conclusions. Goodman said this session, the entire legislature and the governor’s office recognized the importance of coming up with a solution.

“It was contentious and I guess it might have gotten personal at times and that’s unfortunate,” Goodman said. “But now we are coming together, both the Governor’s Office and the Senate and the House to fix this problem.”

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