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Prisoner Problems 

Computer errors continue to plague state Department of Corrections; plus, Washington ranked first in pro-charter-school policies

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GET OUT OF JAIL EARLY

Since 2002, approximately 3,000 PRISONERS in Washington have been released early due to a computer coding error that went unnoticed for 10 years, and then unrepaired for four more. Now, interim Corrections Secretary Dick Morgan says similar mistakes could be on the horizon.

The issue, Morgan tells the Northwest News Network, is uniformity in judgment and sentencing documents — orders from the court that tell the Department of Corrections how long to incarcerate people.

"We had over 800 judgments and sentences that had errors or were incomplete," Morgan tells the Northwest News Network.

If an individual is sentenced to prison time, his or her file is sent to the DOC, where records clerks input the information into a computer. However, not all counties use the same "judgment and sentencing" form, which is causing confusion. Further complicating the situation is the fact that some forms are incompletely or incorrectly filled out, says DOC spokesman Jeremy Barclay.

"Sometimes it's clear as crystal, but oftentimes there are errors, or there is a discrepancy between what a judge sentences and what is actually prescribed by law," Barclay says.

Morgan has instructed records clerks to double-check the documents, but Barclay notes that those employees are not necessarily qualified to do so.

"The concern is that at some point a data entry clerk is going to miss something on a legally prescribed form," Barclay says.

The DOC has been meeting with prosecutors, judges and legislators to address the problem, he adds. The agency is in the process of drafting legislation that would, in part, standardize the troublesome forms.

"What we receive in that packet is what's determining how long we're keeping someone in custody," Barclay says. "A judge ruled to take a person's liberty; it's important that we hold them for the right amount of time." (MITCH RYALS)

TOP OF THE CLASS

Even as Washington CHARTER SCHOOLS have struggled to survive through a series of court battles, Washington Charter Schools Association CEO Tom Franta has always maintained one thing: This state has one of the strongest charter school laws in the country.

A new report from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers (NACSA) affirms that stance. It ranks Washington first — tied with Indiana and Nevada — in state policies that promote strong charter schools.

Franta sees the report as validation. Other states with charter school laws have faced harsh criticism for allowing too many for-profit charters with little accountability. But in Washington, only nonprofit charters are allowed, and if a school is performing poorly, there are provisions that would automatically close the school based on student outcomes. He says that charter schools have the "freedom and flexibility they need" while remaining accountable should any issues arise.

"Our lawmakers have struck the appropriate balance," Franta says.

The report comes at a time when the Washington Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, is challenging the state's charter school law once again in court. The WEA argues that charter schools are unconstitutional because they use taxpayer dollars without adequate public oversight. Last year, the state Supreme Court agreed that charters were unconstitutional before the state Legislature changed the law to save charter schools. That fix has been challenged by the WEA, which argues that the law didn't actually change the fundamental problem.

The report, released Tuesday by NACSA, says that Washington's law is based on "best practices in charter school policy."

Idaho's charter school law improved its national ranking to 20th compared to the previous report in 2012, based on laws that increased accountability.

John Hedstrom, NACSA vice president of policy and advocacy, says that Washington implements all eight of NACSA's recommended policies on school accountability. Hedstrom says that charter schools can be successful for kids if states have the right framework in place.

"We feel Washington state has provided that framework," he says. (WILSON CRISCIONE)

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