OLYMPIA - Faced with what Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna calls a "cottage industry" of prison inmates filing massive requests for government records in hopes of collecting penalties for slip-ups, state lawmakers are considering changing the rules.
Instead of paying any penalties to the inmate, as happens now, the money would instead go into the state's victim-compensation fund.
"In no way is (the proposal) intended to let an agency off the hook," Tim Ford, an assistant attorney general, told lawmakers Tuesday at a Senate hearing.
Inmates could still request the records. And agencies that wrongly deny the request or make other mistakes would still face the prospect of paying court-ordered penalties and attorney's costs. But the "lottery" motive behind many requests would be erased, Ford said. Under current law, a judge can award $5 to $100 per day when someone is wrongly denied a public document.
The proposal has raised concerns, however, among open-records groups and a legal firm whose clients include inmates.
"I think that's a dangerous road to start down," said Jennifer Shaw, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The current public disclosure laws make no distinctions between different types of requesters. A curious citizen, a newspaper, a prison inmate - all have the same rights to see a document.
Singling out a particular type of requester for different treatment, Shaw said, could open the door to other limitations on what's supposed to be a tool to make government more open and accountable.
"We obviously have lots of different rules for people that are incarcerated," responded Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 6294. A lot of prisoners who file big records requests, he said, likely do it "just to be trouble."
As things stand now, assistant attorney general Dan Judge said, state agencies -- particularly the Department of Corrections -- are struggling with the workload generated by prisoner record requests. Agencies must decide what information can legally be released, delete anything confidential and make copies.
Inmates file voluminous requests each year, Judge said, taking up thousands of staff hours. About three-fourths of the thousands of record requests the Department of Corrections receives each year, he said, come from people in prison. And most inmates never pay the copy fees.
Since 2002, he said, one inmate alone has filed 494 requests totaling 19,000 pages of government records, plus audio tapes and CDs. Billed more than $4,000 in copy fees, the man has paid just $133.
Another inmate filed 788 records requests in the last five months of 2005, Judge said. The Department of Corrections finally got a judge to limit further requests from him.
"What we're talking about is a very small group of people that are abusing the system," said Sen. Dale Brandland, R-Bellingham. "It's frivolous people who have chosen to say 'We're going to bury the system in paperwork.' "
At the Department of Corrections alone, settlements for record-related errors -- like not turning over records on time or wrongly denying them -- ranged from a few hundred dollars to $541,000 in a lengthy court fight with the publication Prison Legal News, which was wrongly denied information about prison medical staffers' treatment of prisoners who died.
State lawmakers recently changed record-request rules to allow agencies to prepare large requests in batches. If the person doesn't pick up or pay for the first batch, the request can be shelved. Agencies can also require a 10 percent deposit, up front, on large copy jobs.
Those tools ought to be enough, said Rowland Thompson, a lobbyist for Allied Daily Newspapers, an industry group. And even under the proposed bill, he said, there's nothing to stop an inmate from collecting a penalty indirectly simply by having a friend or relative make the record requests.
Also, many inmate requests are made by people facing legitimate problems in the correctional system, said Beth Colgan, an attorney with Evergreen Legal Services.
"These are not just prisoners trying to overwhelm the system or a 'lottery,' as has been referred to," she said.
Lawmakers seemed to have mixed feelings on the bill during a hearing Tuesday. For now, it's parked in the committee, which Hargrove chairs.
"I thought that was going to be simpler than it was," Hargrove said afterward.
Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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