Software Bug Releases Thousands of US Prisoners Early

Most software has bugs, sometimes small, sometimes large, but very rare is the bug that exists for 13 years and has consequences as serious as causing over 3,200 prisoners in the US to be released early. The bug in question existed in the system that Washington state used to calculate sentence reductions in good behavior, resulting in incorrect reductions in the sentence reductions.

The bug was introduced back in 2002, as part of an update to make the system conform to a new court ruling regarding the application of good behavior credits. The most disturbing part is that the bug was discovered in 2012, and the Washington Department of Corrections (DoC) made aware of it by the family of a victim which discovered the offender was getting out of jail early. It remained relatively ignored at the time until a new boss of IT for the DoC realized the true severity of the issue. At a press conference, Jay Inslee, Washington’s governor stated, “That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening.”

Mr. Inslee ordered the software fixed as soon as possible, with an update to the system that fixes the bug due to be applied by the 7th of January. Until the update is in place, the DoC have been ordered to check manually whether a prisoner should be released before doing so.

An analysis shows that the average amount of time that prisoners with miscalculated sentences got released early was 49 days. There were outliers, however, with one prisoner having had 600 days cut from his sentence. Those prisoners who were released early would have to return to prison to see out the correct remainder of their sentence, even those who have been released for a considerable period. Five prisoners have already been returned to jails, with state police working to see that all those who need to return to their cells do so.

As the world move to become more and more reliant on digital systems, it is shocking that a mistake of this calibre can be allowed to happen, especially over such a long period. Mistakes like this bring into question whether we can yet truly rely on electronic systems for such important tasks, and it is fortunate that the prisons have a way to manually assure the duration of sentences, else the error could have been uncorrectable. It was unconfirmed whether any prisoners released early had committed crimes, but it is concerning that for the last 12 years, criminals who had not seen out their full sentence could have been walking the streets of Washington.