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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Restoring Credibility

The Columbian
Published: March 1, 2016, 6:01am

The first report regarding a long-term, tragic failure on the part of the state Department of Corrections effectively distills the issue.

An “inexplicable failure both on an institutional and individual level to appreciate the fact that releasing even one inmate early, let alone thousands, undermined the core mission of the Department of Corrections, which is to protect the public,” said the report released last week from Carl Blackstone and Robert Westinghouse. The former federal prosecutors were hired by Gov. Jay Inslee to investigate a situation in which a software glitch went unnoticed for a decade and then went unaddressed for three years, allowing for some 3,000 inmates to be released early from state custody.

The consequences are evident in the fact that two prisoners who were released prematurely now face charges for deaths they allegedly caused when they should have remained incarcerated. And while outrage from the public is understandable, the focus must remain upon holding state government accountable and on finding a remedy to the problems that created the situation.

“Fundamentally, they did not act on what should be an obvious thing for the Department of Corrections,” Inslee said regarding the accountability portion of the equation. “When somebody is climbing over the wall, we’d send the bloodhounds for them; we’d pull the fire alarm. That didn’t happen here, and it’s inexcusable.” Bernie Warner, who was head of corrections at the time the errors were identified, left his position last fall; his successor, Dan Pacholke, resigned last month; and assistant Attorney General Ronda Larson, whose “deeply flawed” advice to corrections officials that sentences did not need to be recalculated by hand, has resigned.

Others may eventually be found culpable, but the most crucial aspect at this point is restoring the department’s credibility and shoring up the public trust. Among the recommendations from the report is that, “Managers must effectively monitor work to ensure that it is being performed properly.” The need for such a seemingly obvious declaration points out the vast shortcomings in the department; if management duties must be spelled out in simplistic fashion, then something is seriously wrong.

Among other recommendations from Blackstone and Westinghouse: The notion that protecting the public is the primary duty of department staff should be re-emphasized; and an independent ombudsman position should be established within the department. An ombudsman might well have kept the early releases from continuing for more than a decade and might well have prevented the tragedies that resulted.

Meanwhile, investigations instituted by Senate Republicans and the Attorney General’s office continue, as they should. While some critics suggest that the Senate investigation is politically motivated, lawmakers should focus upon solutions rather than election-year finger-pointing. If they uncover additional information and generate additional safeguards through public hearings, their efforts will be validated.

The goal, now, is to identify and fix problems early, rather than allowing them to fester. Last month, Inslee established new accountability measures for all state agencies, requiring an examination of all information technology systems and identifying managers in charge of such oversight. Software has become such a crucial part of all management duties that it no longer is acceptable to pass the buck to the IT department.

The safety of the public depends upon it.