Calif. inmate shift could hurt firefighting crews

Calif. inmate shift could hurt firefighting crews

05 December 2011

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USA — SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Moving California’s lower-level criminals to counties could deprive the state of a third of its inmate firefighters unless agreements are reached with counties, officials said Monday.

During the next two to three years, the state could lose 1,500 of the nearly 4,500 inmates who work on firefighting crews, as less serious offenders serve their time in county lockups instead of state prisons, said Richard Subia, a deputy director with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

It’s the first time officials have said how many inmate firefighters might be lost to the realignment.

The shortage wouldn’t be felt significantly until the 2013 fire season because the state is just beginning to move inmates as part of a law that took effect Oct. 1, Clare Frank, an assistant deputy director at the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told a legislative panel.

California’s program is the largest in the nation, with inmates making up nearly half of the state’s wildland firefighters.

The state is relying on counties to send some prisoners to state-run fire camps to keep them out of local jails, officials told members of the Legislature’s Rural Fire Protection Working Group.

But most sheriffs say their counties can’t afford the $46.19 a day the state plans to charge for each prisoner sent to the camps, said Curtis Hill, a lobbyist for the California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Counties also are concerned

about the cost of inmates’ transportation and medical care, said Rosemary McCool, a lobbyist with the California State Association of Counties.

“Fire camps certainly could be, will be, a good opportunity for us, but we simply can’t do it at those rates,” said Butte County Sheriff Jerry Smith, who heads the sheriffs association’s effort on fire camps.

However, the corrections department can’t afford to charge less without losing money at a time when the state is facing another multibillion-dollar budget deficit, Department of Finance analyst Justyn Howard said.

Lawmakers approved the realignment to save the state money and to comply with a federal court order that California reduce prison crowding.

Several lawmakers said the state should consider absorbing more of the cost because of the overall benefit. Inmate firefighters are paid far less than professional full- or part-time firefighters. Plus, the state benefits when inmates go to fire camps instead of state prisons.

“We’ve got to have fire crews out there,” said Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, chairman of the working group. “We’ve got to find a way to have that happen.”

Subia said the corrections department does not intend to send more dangerous inmates to fire camps. That means the state will have to reduce its current 196 fire crews in two years if the counties don’t supply enough prisoners, officials said.

California has capacity for about 4,500 inmates in its firefighting camps and currently has about 4,000 inmates in the program.

“We foresee being impacted seriously if nothing is done,” Frank said.

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