Bad software analysis causes release of 450 dangerous Calif. inmates

For once, a huge, dangerous data breach isn't IT's fault


For once there has been a major security breach not directly attributable to weak network security or nonexistent data-loss protection – the kind of IT-related security breach that won't necessarily get some digital-security geek fired.

The bad news is that it might get some programmers or project-managers fired, or get other people killed.

Due to an error in the way it analyzes prisoner records, a program used by the California Bureau of Prisons made recommendations that led to the release of 450 felons whose records indicate a "high risk of violence."

Another 1,000 prisoners listed highly likely to commit drug crimes, property crimes or other offenses were also released as part of a court-ordered program to reduce the 143,335-prisoner population of California's overcrowded prisons by about 33,000.

The program, running since January, 2010, relied on a program that examined arrest records of prisoners, but not previous convictions or in-prison disciplinary actions, which prosecutors told the Los Angeles Times paint a far clearer picture of an inmate's proclivity for violence.

The application evaluates information in a database of 16.4 million arrests statewide, but had no access to data that would have given better indications of a prisoner's risk of committing further violence.

Its access to California juvenile-criminal records was spotty, the Inspector General's (IG) report concluded,(PDF) so only a prisoner's adult record was often considered.

It also lacked access to in-prison disciplinary records – which often identify gang affiliations and the likelihood a prisoner will become violent without being arrested.

Worst, the application had to use as its primary data source California's Automated Criminal History System (ACHS), which contains data on more than 16.4 million arrests, but is missing data on convictions for half those records, making it difficult to weight each incident accurately as an indicator for future violence, the IG's office concluded.

"Despite these significant shortcomings in the ACHS database, [California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation] had no choice but to use that database, however inadequate, as the best available source of data," the IG's report concluded.

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