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.

Filed Under: department of corrections, inmates, mistakes, prison management, software, washington


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  1. icon
    sehlat (profile), 20 Mar 2019 @ 12:31pm

    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.


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