Washington Prison Management Software Setting People Free Too Early, Keeping Other People Locked Up Too Long

from the on-average,-it-works dept

All this technology is getting in the way of justice being served. For the second time in five years, Washington’s Department of Corrections is dealing with issues created by its prisoner management software. Four years ago, this happened:

For three years, state Department of Corrections staff knew a software-coding error was miscalculating prison sentences and allowing inmates to be released early. On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee gave the damning tally: up to 3,200 prisoners set free too soon since 2002.

For thirteen years, officials knew there was a problem with the software but did nothing about it. It wasn’t until the state’s governor got involved that anyone at the DOC started caring about its malfunctioning code. The code was supposedly fixed but new problems arose, affecting both sides of the jail walls.

A software problem has caused at least a dozen Washington prison inmates to be released too early — or held too long — and has sparked a review of as many as 3,500 cases.

Department of Corrections (DOC) officials are scrambling to determine whether the other inmates’ sentences were miscalculated and are still working to gauge the scope of the problem.

The previous bug miscalculated “good time” credits, resulting in thousands of premature releases. This time around, buggy code is screwing up calculations for inmates who have violated their parole. A few have benefited from the problem. But most of the cases being reviewed involve inmates who have been jailed for too long.

The previous calculation error resulted in two homicides by an inmate who was released too early. This time around, it’s far more likely inmates who have served their time aren’t being released. Either way, there’s life and liberty on the line and the Department of Corrections is showing little sense of urgency when addressing these problems.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this: with enough votes, the state’s convoluted sentencing laws will be simplified, potentially making the calculation of sentences easy enough any human can do it.

[State Representative Roger] Goodman has proposed legislation, House Bill 1495, creating an 18-member task force that would review and recommend simplifications to the state’s sentencing guidelines, with a final report due by the end of 2020. He said his committee also may ask DOC leaders for a public briefing and explanation of the latest sentence-calculation problems.

Of course, this could take as long to fix as it took the state DOC to fix its original software problem. No answers would be expected for another 18 months, by which point new bugs in the DOC’s software may surface and start handing out get out of jail free cards to some inmates and go directly to jail cards to others who’ve already served their time.

And if it’s not working now, there’s a good chance the DOC’s software will never function properly. Part of the problem is the legislature itself, which complicates sentence calculations by adding new wrinkles with each legislative session. According to the Seattle Times, at least 60 bills in the pipeline could affect sentencing guidelines, increasing the chance of new calculation errors developing.

Software may be the only way to handle a job this complex. But those overseeing the software’s deployment have shown they’re not too interested in proactive maintenance of this complex system. Problems are eventually solved, years after the fact. That sort of responsiveness is unacceptable when guidelines are being constantly altered by new legislation.

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Comments on “Washington Prison Management Software Setting People Free Too Early, Keeping Other People Locked Up Too Long”

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sehlat (profile) says:

This is NOT a software problem

It’s a peopleware problem. The endless tinkering and revisioning of the law has exactly the same effect as any other carelessly analyzed software revision. In a word, bugs. Systems tend to get more complex as they grow, and when they pass the threshold of our ability to understand them, they are unmaintainable and either have to be abandoned or replaced with simpler, more maintainable ones.

The peopleware in this case is the legislature. They don’t understand the effects of their actions, but they DO understand throwing bones to their supporters.

"The penalty for mopery and dopery isn’t strict enough? I’ll put a bill through and thanks for the donations."

"The penalty for mopery and dopery is too strict? I’ll put a bill through and thanks for the donations."

Wash, rinse, repeat and ignore the fact that the towels are being turned into rags.

TFG says:

Re: This IS a software problem

It’s… both. The software itself has bugs, and the people that maintain it aren’t maintaining it.

Plus the legislature keeps changing things. Which requires the software to be updated accordingly, in a timely fashion … which isn’t happening.

This isn’t a case where it has to be one or the other. It can, and is both.

Darkness Of Course (profile) says:

And everybody should code.

Yes, the issue is complex. The solution needs to be more robust. And just accepting the software even though it was known not to work? Amazing. Amazingly stupid.

Some of the biggest failings I’ve seen in my several decades of coding/engineering is missing edge cases along with sufficient failure testing.

QA goes into the virtual bar: orders 1 beer, orders 0 bears, orders -1 beers, orders 9,999,999 beers. Tips bartender -$42.

Grrrrrrr says:

Re: And everybody should code.

Do not blame it on QA, blame management that decided to save money and not test those "things that will never fail". They try to convince you edge cases, corner cases, and the ever maligned input filtering do not need testing – LOL, sure they don’t.

And then when the inevitable happens everyone is given the management yelling and finger wagging meeting followed by the ever present employee review bullshit laying blame where it does not belong.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Schrödinger's Inmate

The previous calculation error resulted in two homicides by an inmate who was released too early.

To clarify, the two homicides were by two separate mistakenly-released inmates. Jeremiah A. Smith and Robert T Jackson according to this article.

The article also suggests Smith was released in May rather than August of the same year, so while the homicide was facilitated by a three-month-early release. So he was probably likely to recitivize anyway, just in August rather than May. Contrast if Smith had a few more years to serve, in which case the North Spokane’s occupants (and Smith’s character) may have changed considerably.

But he was being released in August, which means he was likely to recidivize anyway. Which means Caesar Medina, the victim, would be alive, unaware he escaped death. And whatever victims were spared thanks to this incident do not know they escaped death by a software error.

This is a quantum mechanics calculation, isn’t it?

sumgai (profile) says:

I'd vote for something else as the cause

First, take a look at the DOC’s own document on Early Release Times:


12 pages – Yikes!

But the very first page tells a chilling story: The official policy was instituted in 1982, and has been modified/recodified no less than 19 times since then. Double Yikes!!

But any reasonably competent code monkey could implement those changes without breaking the system, given that he/she wasn’t told to "get it done in 20 hours or less". I’d also opt to have a sample testing regimen put in place, but nobody ever askes me how to do their job….

And now we get to the crux of the problem – guardware. It should be obvious, with or without reading the above doc, that guards have a very major impact on Early Release Time calculations. While the actual entry of time earned (or taken away) is done by only a few individuals, said individuals rely on reports from prison guards. Guards can’t directly input data to change ERT calculations, but they can sure as Hell have an impact through the way they create their reports. And unless there’s an especially egregious error, they are almost never questioned.

Thus, a flawed but fixable system is not only influenced by, but easily corrupted by the lowest level (first tier) of input – the prison guards.

Disclosure: I’m a resident of Washington State, and I know, or have known, several prison employees, both guards and others in administrative capacities. And no, such knowledge wasn’t gained "from the inside". 🙂


btr1701 (profile) says:

Seems like no matter what the software is saying, if an inmate was sentenced to 10 years, it would be a simple matter for his lawyer to bring a motion before the court that shows his start date in prison and the current date. If it’s 10 years or more, he’s entitled to release.

If the software’s problem is that it’s not calculating ‘good time’ credits and therefore not releasing him before his 10 years is up, I’m not overly concerned about that. He was sentenced to 10 years. That’s what he should serve.

sumgai (profile) says:

Re: Re:


While your scenario looks good and proper, the fact is that courts know that the DOC has its own set of rules, and expects a sentencee to abide by them as part of the punishment. Those rules are provided for in statute law, and have been upheld in numerous court cases.

To cut it short, if you are incarcerated and you fail to abide by DOC rules, you can indeed earn "bad time", which extends your time to serve beyond the court’s initial sentence. It shouldn’t need a lengthy analysis to point out that if one or more guards are not happy with you, their reports, especially if they come from more than one guard, can be weaponized against you.

Therein is where a lawyer will be needed to get the prison system to divulge all records of both good and bad time earned, in order to persuade a judge that a prisoner’s time has been miscalculated. (Or indeed, it is correct, and the prisoner has no right to complain.)


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