Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a week before Christmas that as many as 3,200 prisoners since 2002 had been released early from state prisons because of a computer glitch which granted them more time off for good behavior than they should have received. The median number of days of early release is somewhere between 49-55 days according to the Governor’s office. (1)

And the worst has happened – two of those released early have killed people – One vehicular homicide; another first-degree murder. (2)

The reactions have been predictable:

“That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening,” Inslee said at a press conference. “So, when I learned of this, I immediately ordered the Department to fix it, fix it fast and fix it right.” (1)

But let me ask a heretical question: If the glitch hadn’t occurred, would it have made a difference?

If the two charged with killing people had been kept in prison an additional 49-55 days or whatever – would it have changed their behaviors after they were released?

Consider the following two statements

  • Inslee’s general counsel, Nicholas Brown: “What we know is based on the law of averages.” … “Approximately 10 percent of all inmates who are released from prison commit some new offense in the first year of their release.” (2)
  • Asotin County Prosecutor Ben Nichols: “In the state of Washington, the criminal justice system has abandoned rehabilitation as a goal for adult offenders.” (3)

In short, nothing would have occurred in the time they should have been in prison to prevent them from doing what they did when they got out. All the computer glitch did was move up the timing by 49-55 days. A different time, a different place, a different victim, but the same result.

Was there a failure in the leadership of the Department of Corrections? Yes, the glitch was not prevented from occurring or corrected when it was identified. There’s an investigation as to why that occurred.

But the bigger question is why our incarceration program produces the results it does with an assumption that 10% will re-offend in the first year after release – and that’s acceptable?

Why then don’t we just throw them in prison and leave them there? Well, there’s the 90% that don’t re-offend in their first year so there will be some that should be released but won’t be – but public safety would be insured – that’s the price to be paid.

Or maybe the legislature should question the very basic assumptions of our incarceration program and ask the questions of what are we getting for our money spent and are there better ways to insure that the risk of future anti-social behavior is reduced.  What’s the Return on Investment for the money spent?

This is not a call to be soft on crime but to be relentless in preventing future crimes so there will be fewer victims – and less cost to society.

(1) http://www.king5.com/story/news/local/2015/12/22/3200-wa-prisoners-incorrectly-released-early-since-2002/77764040/
(2) http://www.npr.org/2016/01/01/461700642/computer-glitch-leads-to-mistaken-early-release-of-prisoners-in-washington
(3) Spokesman-Review, “Boy’s life sentence in 1931 focus of new exhibit at WSU,” January 3, 2016, http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2016/jan/03/1931-juvenile-justice-case-focus-of-new-exhibit-at/

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.