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Corrections secretary resigns amid early release controversy

Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke (AP)

SEATTLE (AP) - Washington state Corrections Secretary Dan Pacholke resigned on Saturday amid a controversy over the early release of prisoners, telling a Republican senator he hoped his departure would satisfy the "need for blood."

The Department of Corrections and governor's office disclosed in December that a software coding error led to the early release of up to 3,200 prisoners since 2002 because of miscalculated sentences. At least two deaths have been tied to the early releases.

"I notify you now of my resignation. I hope it helps meet your need for blood," Pacholke wrote Saturday in an email to Sen. Mike Padden, a Republican from Spokane Valley who is chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. "I hope it gives you fodder for the press and fulfills your political needs so you can let this agency, our agency, heal."

Pacholke's departure comes amid two ongoing investigations into what led to the software error and early releases.

Last month, the Senate Law and Justice Committee issued legislative subpoenas seeking emails, reports or data compilations by the Department of Corrections and the governor's office related to the early releases. The committee also hired its own investigator.

The separate probe will run concurrent to one already being conducted by two investigators hired by Inslee.

"Pacholke submitted his resignation this morning, saying he hoped that his move would end the political blood thirst of Senate Republicans," Gov. Jay Inslee said in a statement Saturday. "I doubt it will accomplish that, and I'm sorry to see a dedicated public servant end his tenure this way."

Inslee said Pacholke was working hard to get the agency through difficult times.

Pacholke was appointed by the governor to lead the department in October, but the Senate had not yet confirmed his appointment.

On Friday, Senate Republicans showed they were willing to use their power to remove department heads when they voted to reject Inslee's appointment of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. In that rare move, majority Republicans and a Democrat who caucuses with them voted 25-21 to not confirm her appointment, ousting her from the job she has held since 2013. Some Democrats argued the act was a political ploy.

In his resignation letter to Inslee, Pacholke apologized for "the tragic consequences" as a result of the sentencing calculation errors.

The agency was first alerted to the error - which started in 2002 - in December 2012, when a victim's family learned of a prisoner's imminent release. The family did its own calculations and found he was being credited with too much time.

However, even though the agency consulted with attorneys regarding the error the same month and scheduled a fix for the program, it was repeatedly delayed and ultimately, never done. Pacholke has said he didn't learn of the error until the middle of December, and the governor says he didn't learn of the issue until that same time, when corrections' officials notified his staff.

One inmate, Jeremiah Smith, mistakenly released from prison three months early in May has been charged with killing a teenager when he should have been locked up. Two other men have been charged with crimes that occurred when they should have been behind bars. Robert Jackson was charged with vehicular homicide in the death of his girlfriend in a car crash, while Daniel Morris was charged with attempting to elude authorities.

A software fix to the coding error, publicly disclosed by Inslee on Dec. 22, was implemented last month.

"What current leadership discovered last December was a system failure. A tragic system failure. Understanding the system failure that occurred will take an earnest self-examination," wrote Pacholke.

Pacholke worked with the agency for 33 years. The department oversees about 18,500 incarcerated offenders with 8,200 employees and a $580 million annual budget. Pacholke previously served as deputy secretary of the agency.

He has been credited with innovative programs to help offenders rehabilitate.

The text of Pacholke's resignation letter follows:

Dear Governor Inslee,
The time has come for me to submit to you my resignation. It was the highpoint of my career to be asked to lead this agency. I thank you for trusting me with that responsibility. I have served this agency and this state for 33 years. I am proud to have worked for and help build what I believe to be the best correctional system in the nation.
That said, no system is ever perfect. Especially in complex organizations, there are just too many variables. What legislators who point to error as an indictment of leadership fail to recognize is the magnitude of things that could go wrong in any agency on any day. Errors will occur. The relevant test of leadership is how it mobilizes in response to error. In 2012, DOC leadership failed in its response to a sentencing calculation error. As I have before, I apologize on behalf of the agency for the tragic consequences of this error.
What current leadership discovered last December was a system failure. A tragic system failure. Understanding the system failure that occurred will take an earnest self-examination. I hope that in my short tenure as Secretary I have better aligned our administrative and headquarters culture to that which exists in field operations, a culture which recognizes and responds to disruptors, both small and large. It is a culture that strives to constantly improve, that recognizes that failures will occur but is prepared to act swiftly and decisively to respond and adjust.
It is my hope that with this resignation, the politicians who would use this tragic event for their political purposes will have satisfied their need for blood. The shaming and blaming needs to end. It exposes ignorance of the complexity of the work of state government and it is a grave injustice to the 8,200 staff who work for this agency.
What I am certain of, is that this agency has a strong foundation. The damage that has been done to the department by this error, though it will take time, will make it better if it is allowed to address this as a system failure and fix the issues this crisis has exposed.
It has been an honor to serve this agency and this state for more than three decades.
Dan Pacholke, Secretary
Washington State Department of Corrections

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