Capitol Alert

State reverses plan to have violent offenders fight fires

An inmate crew protects a fire line near back fires south of Highway 20 in Lake County on Aug. 2, 2015.
An inmate crew protects a fire line near back fires south of Highway 20 in Lake County on Aug. 2, 2015.

California officials on Tuesday abruptly reversed course on a plan that would have allowed state prison inmates convicted of violent crimes to fight fires next year.

“We need to rethink that,” Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Bill Sessa said, although he said part of the proposal was withdrawn because of some “confusion and misunderstanding.”

Media outlets, including The Sacramento Bee, reported this week that the plan that prison officials had been considering would have changed a long-standing policy that excludes inmates whose crimes fall under the state’s legal definition of a “violent offense.” That list includes armed robbery, rape, murder, mayhem and 19 other crimes.

About 3,800 lower-level offenders have worked in fire camps this year, mostly cutting fire breaks during the state’s drought-fueled wildfires. However, their numbers are dwindling because of changes to California sentencing laws. Criminals convicted of lower-level crimes now go to local jails or receive parole.

Despite assurances from the corrections department that the screening of candidates for fire camps would remain as rigorous as ever, the head of the state’s firefighters union expressed concern for the safety of unarmed Cal Fire employees who would supervise inmates with more serious criminal histories.

Some media reports also raised concerns about public safety, since fire camps are minimum-security facilities. Last month, for example, an inmate walked away from a Los Angeles County fire camp. He was found a week later.

Sessa said that the department will reassess which crimes will automatically exclude inmates from the fire program. Officials will also implement a new policy to accept inmates with seven years remaining on their sentences instead of the current five years, Sessa said.

In meantime, he said, the department will search for a better way to explain what it wants to do.

“We’re always going to have only what we consider nonviolent felons” in the program, he said. “But with all the confusion, we thought it would be better to pull (the proposal) back and do it better.”