People are being unjustly kept in prison because of bad software. It's yet another reason mass incarceration should be a national outrage.
- Whistleblowers in Arizona said people are being kept in prison past their release date because of a “software glitch.”
- And yet, there’s no independent investigation and no national outrage.
- This can only happen if Americans aren’t ashamed and outraged about mass incarceration.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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People are sitting in jail right now who shouldn’t be there.
It’s time that becomes less of an oft-ignored but accepted part of our justice system and more of a national outrage.
In Arizona, a software snafu and a culture of unaccountability may have conspired to keep hundreds of prisoners behind bars, despite having met certain requirements that would merit their early release.
It’s outrageous, but it begs the question of how many more people are locked up in the 49 other states because of bureaucratic red tape or technological mishaps.
And despite an increased awareness of mass incarceration — which is on the short list of America’s most enduring national ignominies — we’re still an inherently punitive society.
We shame, we punish, and we discard people. And after that, we don’t think much about them.
They’d be free, if only the state’s software would let them
The details behind the Arizona “glitch” read like dystopian sci-fi, but they’re also banal enough to induce a cynical shrug.
As first reported by Jimmy Jenkins, senior field correspondent for the NPR-affiliated KJZZ, the Arizona Department of Corrections’ leadership has since 2019 been aware of a software bug that is contributing to keeping people locked up well past the date they were entitled to be released.
Incarcerated people in Arizona earn “credits” for good behavior that shaves time from their sentences. And two years ago the Department of Corrections spent $24 million to contract with an IT company to build and maintain software that would tabulate these credits and make it easier for everyone to know when it was time to let someone out of jail.
But according to whistleblowers, the software doesn’t account for a 2019 law that allows people convicted of nonviolent crimes to earn even more credits and secure an even earlier release date.
“We knew from day one this wasn’t going to work,” one of the whistleblowers told Jenkins. “When they approved that bill, we looked at it and said ‘Oh, s—.'”
Department employees raised warnings to leadership for over a year before submitting an official memo in October 2020 detailing the software’s failure to account for the 2019 law, thus making its release date tabulations inaccurate.
The Department’s solution was not to immediately fix the bug, it was to manually tabulate every prisoners’ credits, according to the whistleblowers. That means employees are literally sitting with calculators and crunching the numbers making up an enormous amount of data.
Immediately after the story went public, the Department released a statement calling its premise “false,” and denied that any prisones’ release dates were in any way delayed.
Bill Lamoreaux, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Corrections, told me in an email that the software was “never intended to automatically calculate this sentence modification, hence there is no ‘glitch’ with the system.” Lamoreaux added that the Department “cannot solely rely upon any automated sentence calculation” and that the “process will always require human interaction.”
Jenkins reported that, as of February, the Department said it had identified a little more than 700 people who might be eligible for early release.
But, a whistleblower told Jenkins, “The only prisoners that are getting into programming are the squeaky wheels … the ones who already know they qualify or people who have family members on the outside advocating for them.”
A group of Arizona state legislators reacted to Jenkins’ story by calling for Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to conduct an immediate investigation because “Inmates are trapped in facilities that they should by law be released from, due to negligence and willful disregard of a glaring and fixable issue.”
But that’s where the action has stopped. The people are still locked up, and there’s no political will to immediately right this wrong, or even to urgently get to the bottom of why the Department’s account differs so wildly from the whistleblowers’. (Gov. Ducey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
This shouldn’t be happening, period. If someone is in jail and should not be, it should be the state’s top priority to free them from unjust bondage.
Mass incarceration is cancellation on a grand scale
Incarceration levels in the US — which are the highest in the world by many magnitudes — represent one of America’s lasting national shames.
But until we as a country decide that rehabilitation and reform produce greater societal benefits than punishment and vengeance, criminal justice reforms will be cosmetic — designed to make a big show of compassion while doing little to nothing to address the underlying crisis.
Americans need to adopt a passion for the virtue of forgiveness, which I’ve argued for when addressing zero tolerance in education policies that cause students and teachers to face expulsions and firings for minor transgressions.
Instead, our current model for addressing criminality is to treat the perpetrators as doers of evil who must be punished and dehumanized, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of their transgression and prove to the rest of society that “justice” has been done.
Once discarded, such people’s suffering isn’t met with empathy so much as collective apathy.
But a single person unjustly deprived of life and liberty, confined to a taxpayer-funded cage, should provoke the public into widespread indignation and demands for reform.
There’s no “justice” with mass incarceration. To move past it, we need to consider that our culture of punishment isn’t just wrong, it’s a failure.
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