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Hearing Officers: Dedication to Impartiality and Justice

July 3, 2024

By Brendan Baptiste Communications Office


The Washington DOC Hearings Team enjoying Leavenworth, Washington after a work exercise (DOC Hearings Team).

Hearings officers for the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) play a crucial role in the administration of justice within the state’s correctional system. These professionals are tasked with overseeing disciplinary hearings to ensure that the due process rights of individuals on release are protected while maintaining security and order. Their work is vital to upholding the integrity of the corrections system and while helping to keep a fair and just environment for staff and incarcerated.

Hearings are handled in all 32 counties across the state. This process is done at state facilities, jails, reentry centers and out of custody field offices. Officers must remain neutral, avoiding any bias or preconceived notions about the case of the individuals involved. This impartiality is crucial for maintaining the integrity of the correctional system and ensuring that disciplinary actions are based solely on the evidence presented.

Hearing officers are responsible for conducting administrative hearings for individuals who are accused of violating parole or release program rules. These violations can range from something as minor as missing a treatment meeting, to more serious offenses like the possession of narcotics or engaging in violent behavior. The hearing officer’s primary responsibility is to ensure that each case is heard fairly and impartially and that each incarcerated individual has an opportunity to hear the evidence and present their own evidence. They then assess evidence and testimony to determine whether the individual is guilty of the alleged infraction.

DOC utilizes the negotiated sanction process. Should an incarcerated individual acknowledge guilt to a violation and there is an agreement between all parties on an appropriate sanction, then the agreed negotiated sanction may be affirmed by the hearings officer.

All incarcerated individuals have constitutional due process rights to a hearing where they may plead not guilty. They will receive all evidence to be used against them at least 24 hours prior to the hearing to prepare a defense, have a neutral and detached hearings officer make a fair decision based on all the evidence presented, have rights to a written explanation of the decision, and a right to appeal that decision. Throughout this process, hearings officers must ensure that the accused procedural rights are upheld as the principle of fairness is at the core of the hearing officer’s role.

Those released on either a Drug Offender Sentence Alternative (DOSA)(pdf) or a Community Custody Prison (CCP) Sentence may receive a sanction of up to 15 days confinement and remain in the community, or if warranted may be returned to prison for the remainder of their unexpired term. At times, this unexpired term may be years. Sanctions will protect the community as well as have the best chance for impacting and changing behaviors is the goal of every decision made by the hearings officer.

“We all hold a stalwart belief in the constitution and due process,” says Brent Kitchens, Hearings Supervisor. “Every person deserves to be heard and treated fairly. We aren’t about punishment. It’s our job to determine what is the best way we can positively impact this person so they can get on the right path, right now.”

The work of hearings officers has a significant impact on the overall operation of corrections. By conducting fair and thorough hearings, they help to maintain order, accountability and discipline to those in a release program. This not only contributes to a safer environment for our communities, ensures fundamental fairness and due process protections for all citizens of our state, and supports the rehabilitative goals of the Department of Corrections.