Pierce County's top prosecutor has added his voice to a call in the Legislature to put a stop to clerical errors that can result in criminals getting out of prison early.
Sloppy paperwork could be causing incorrect terms for countless prisoners in the state’s Department of Corrections, in some instances early releases not intended by the courts.
When an offender enters prison, courts submit a paper document called a “judgment and sentencing form,” which details the length and conditions of an offender’s confinement. Illegible handwriting or legal errors have led to sentences that extended or shortened offenders’ time behind bars, unintended by courts’ decisions.
"Convicted criminals should serve their complete sentence," said Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist. "Crime victims and the public should be able to count on that. This bill is a step in the right direction."
Governor Jay Inslee and corrections officials announced in 2015 that at least 2,700 Washington offenders have seen early release due to sentence-calculating errors over the past several years.
In 2016, an error on a judgment and sentencing form from 2016 released five sex offenders early without appropriate supervision, according to a press release by the governor’s office.
The process can be complicated. Many of the state’s 39 counties use their own forms and some sentences carry enhanced punishments depending on the type of crime, from drug felonies to sex offenses. By law, the state Department of Corrections must still enforce the court's order regardless of any errors it may contain.
House Bill 1680, which is pending in the Legislature, would give the Department of Corrections 90 days to petition the state’s court of appeals to review any incomplete or illegible sentencing orders issued on or after
Jan. 1, 2018.
"This bill is a step in the right direction," Lindquist said.
Sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, the bill creates a sentencing elements worksheet outlining clear and concise punishments for each county’s judgment and sentence documents.
Goodman believes that creating a statewide judgment and sentencing form, as the bill originally proposed, would be impractical given the time and legal changes it would take for counties to implement it.
“One proposal was to have a uniform judgment and sentencing form across the state, but that’s not workable because of the lag time that would take place for the counties and the Administrative Office of the Courts to come up with a uniform form and change it repeatedly,” Goodman said. “The sentencing worksheet, the piece of paper that each county would use to calculate sentences across the state for their own judgment and sentencing forms, is workable.”
Goodman said it is critical that state sentences retain a wide variety of criteria for the range of defendants that courts judge.
“If the system were less complex, it would be less sophisticated to treat differently situated offenders as well as address class and race,” Goodman said.
Julie Martin, Assistant Secretary of Administration Operations at the Department of Corrections, believes that the bill could greatly simplify the forms the department reviews.
“There are close to a hundred different judgment sentence forms that we receive every year from the 39 different counties,” Martin said. “We believe that by having information in one central place will make it more efficient for the courts to enter all the sentencing elements as well as DOC’s staff to locate all the information.”
The bill’s substitute version requires the Department of Corrections to consult with legal counsel such as the Washington Superior Court Judges' Association and the Washington Public Defenders' Association while developing the mandatory sentencing elements worksheet.
Sometimes the Department of Corrections may make such requests as placing prisoners in a facility better suited for their sentences, which courts can overrule. This conflict often complicates sentencing orders.
Tom McBride, Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, believes that sentences can depend on differences of opinion rather than legality alone.
“Sometimes these things aren’t accidents, they’re disputes,” McBride said. “Sometimes what happens in the sentencing isn’t a mistake, sometimes it’s the court saying, ‘I’m going to do this a different way,’ and sometimes a party, whether it’s a defendant or the prosecution, may say that’s not enough of a reason for us to appeal this [judgment and sentence].”
Martin believes that steady communication between the Department of Corrections and the courts is among the most important means of ensuring fair sentences.
“The courts and the attorneys do their best to try to respond to us when we see that there’s perhaps a conflict in law or a need for clarification,” Martin said. “The courts have been very clear that we as a department don’t have the authority to make the change if the [sentencing order] is erroneous or confusing. It is the courts’ decision and we need to reach out to them.”
The bill was passed through the House Public Safety Committee by a unanimous vote and referred to the Rules Committee for full House consideration.
Tim Gruver of the WNPA Olympia Bureau contributed to this report, which is a series of news reports from the Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation.
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