Realignment May Reduce Inmate Firefighting Program

In the next year or two, the state may see a reduction of 1,500 inmates who work on firefighting crews

An effort to satisfy a state mandate requiring counties to take on more state prisoners to reduce prison overcrowding could have a drastic impact on the California's inmate firefighting program.

In the next year or two, the state may see a reduction of 1,500 inmates who work on firefighting crews, as less serious offenders serve time in county lockups instead of state prisons.

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

California’s inmate firefighting program is the largest in the nation. Fire crews perform 2.5 million hours of emergency response work per year, according to Cal Fire Spokesperson Daniel Berlant.

Currently, there are between 4,300 and 4,500 inmates who participate in the program, Berlant said.

In Los Angeles County alone, there are five camps.

The Sheriff’s Department has opted to take over the five LA County camps.

"It is our goal to maintain this valuable public safety program for the citizens of the County and we do not want to see it disappear,” said Nicole Nishida, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s media relations representative.

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.

Additionally, the pool of non-violent prisoners will decrease if the system remains as is, said Berlant.

The Public Safety Realignment (AB 109) signed by Governor Jerry Brown addresses the issue of overcrowding in California’s prisons.

Under the state bill, formerly sentenced inmates in state prisons may now be housed at the county level. The law took effect on October 1, 2011.

The Cal Fire Conservation Camp Program has been in existence since the 1940’s and operates in conjunction with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and the Division of Juvenile Justice.

The program consists of non-violent prisoners, housed at conservation camps in 39 statewide locations. Typically, inmates spend a three-year duration at the camp, participating in community service projects.

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