Decade Old Software Bug Sets 3000 US Prisoners Free

A software bug in Washington State Department of Corrections (DoC) has been handing freedom to the inmates well before their sentence was due to end — Each year, over 3200 prisoners benefitted from this bug since 2002.

Supreme Court ruling- The starting point

All this started when a Supreme Court amended the 1995 law on how to calculate release date mitigating prisoner’s good behavior against time to be served which then necessitated an update to the software back in 2002. Once the software was updated against the Supreme Court’s ruling the software began to calculate incorrect release dates.

Before the court’s ruling, only time spent by an inmate in a state prison was considered and not the county jail time for calculating ‘good time’.

Enhancements – The turning point

The error basically occurred due to “enhancements” which is an additional sentence period as a result of the violent nature of the crime like sexual assault, firearm crimes, weapon usage, etc.

Enhancements, by law, are not to be counted up against a good time. However, the software did just that. It added the enhancement as total prison time with the county jail time which made the software show higher values for any inmate who was to be given early release against the ‘good time’.

Bug fix delayed

This bug was originally identified back in 2012 when an assault victim’s family identified the incorrect release of the inmate. Once they reported this to DoC, the officials asked for a system-wide update as a priority but for unknown reasons it was delayed until November 2015 when DoC hired an IT expert who identified how big the bug was.

55 days on average

According to the findings from the IT experts, on average a prisoner was released 55 days before his actual date and about 3200 prisoners each year benefitted.

DoC is now tracking down the inmates who benefited to make them complete their time in prison and is also working on fixing the bug.


Governor Inslee has hired Robert Westinghouse and Carl Blackstone and two retired federal prosecutors for reviewing this incident. Inslee in a statement said:

“That this problem was allowed to continue for 13 years is deeply disappointing to me, totally unacceptable and, frankly, maddening,” Inslee said.

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