Approximately 3,200 Washington State prisoners were released early since 2002, Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced on Tuesday, due to a coding error in computer software that calculates time prisoners can earn off their sentences while incarcerated. Inslee says that some of these inmates will be given credit for the time they have since spent away from prison, while others will need to return to prison or serve their time on work release.
The state says that the median number of days these inmates were released early is 49 days, although it is unclear how many inmates will need to return to prison for substantially longer.
There is obvious danger in inmates being released from prison too early if they committed violent crimes and are not yet rehabilitated. Nevertheless, depending on how long the soon-to-be re-incarcerated inmates will now have to serve in prison, this incident risks mimicking what one federal judge described as “one of the most fundamentally unfair results that I have ever witnessed in thirty-plus years as a judge.”
In 1993, Lummie Sanders was tried and convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm. The length of his sentence, however, hinged upon whether one of his prior convictions was valid. This uncertainty triggered a six year court battle to determine whether he would be subject to a 15 year minimum sentence, or whether he could be released after a little over three years. Indeed, this battle stretched on for so long that Sanders actually was released on the assumption that he only needed to serve 37 months.
A federal probation department sent him a letter informing him that “inasmuch as you completed service of your sentence… you are hereby discharged from supervision of this office on the above sentence.” The government somehow manged to lose track of him before the courts finally sorted out that he should have been sentenced to the full 15 years.
For six years, Sanders was a free man, and during that period of freedom he built a life for himself. He found a job as a construction worker until a work-related accident took his right eye and forced him to go on disability. He joined a church, began to minister to inner-city children through a local ministry, and eventually married another church member. He also learned that several of his children had become “involved in drug activity” during his incarceration. Sanders reunited with these children and successfully counseled them to become drug-free.
And then, one day, while Sanders was living a life that, according to federal appellate Judge Boyce Martin, “exemplified rehabilitation at its best,” there came a knock on his door. He was told he needed to return to prison for nearly 12 more years.
Two federal appellate judges said that this outcome was right. The conclusion of Judge Martin’s dissenting opinion is worth quoting at length:
When I think about this case, as I have done so often as of late, it makes me sick to my stomach. To imagine the emotional and psychological turmoil Mr. Sanders has been forced to endure as a result of the government’s action and inaction in this case shocks and angers me to no end. Sanders woke up every day for six years believing that he was a free man. That’s 2,190 mornings. And, in this case, it appears that Lummie Sanders used each of those days to make something out of his life. I cannot imagine any more settled expectations than those. I would order Sanders released from prison immediately. If we as a federal court cannot remedy the truly fundamentally unfair result that exists here, I don’t know what good we are. And the law, well, if the law truly requires Lummie Sanders to go back to prison — the law is a ass.
In the coming weeks, its possible that dozens of Lummie Sanderses will emerge in Washington State.