Lake Elsinore Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries introduced legislation Monday that would put in place one option for keeping inmate fire crews up and running.
The bill, AB 1562, was drafted to address anticipated cuts in the number of inmate fire crews available to Cal Fire as a result of a new law that shifts prisoners from state-run fire conservation camps into county jails, according to Jeff Greene, spokesman for the Assemblyman’s office.
The legislation gives counties an option over the current alternatives of hiring added fire personnel or losing the inmate firefighters altogether, Greene said.
Riverside County contracts with Cal Fire for fire protection services.
“It’s a mess and an unanticipated consequence of realignment,” Greene said of anticipated fire crew reductions.
The state currently operates 42 adult conservation camps, utilizing nearly 4,000 inmates on 194 fire crews, according to figures provided by Greene. Under the new public safety “realignment” plan passed by California legislators and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, up to 1,500 prison inmates serving on fire crews will either be shifted into local county jails or be released early, Greene's figures show.
Additionally, the state is facing the closure of a dozen or more state-run fire conservation camps, Greene said, noting that the cuts mean the state is potentially losing almost 40 percent of its fire crews.
“Without the inmate fire crews, California will either need to hire additional professional firefighters at a much higher cost, or the state will have a greatly reduced wildland fire protection capacity," the Assemblyman said in a released statement.
Under AB 1562, counties would have the option of contracting with the state to keep some inmates in the fire conservation camps. In exchange, participating counties would pay for inmate medical care, which they are already doing under realignment, Greene said. Counties would also take on the added cost of inmate housing in the camps, which Greene said is approximately $46.19 per day, not including medical care.
Still, Greene argues that counties' costs to participate in the optional program would be cheaper than hiring firefighters.
"What we're doing now is clarifying the law," he added, explaining that AB 1562 gives Cal Fire the legal authority to implement the program. "We're simply putting the structure in place."
Greene said the bill would also help alleviate the problem of jail overcrowding.
Under the newly adopted realignment plan, the number of convicted criminals housed inside Riverside County jails is growing, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. As of January 5, 2012, Riverside County jails are housing 735 inmates who would have otherwise been sent to state prisons, according to the Sherrif's Department.
And department officials contend county jails are at capacity.
“As a result, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department will be forced to relieve overcrowding by exercising measures such as electronic ankle bracelet monitoring, return parole violators to the supervision of parole, and the early release of some lower-level inmates,” the department stated in a Jan. 6 news release.
While AB 1562 may offer some respite, it's not clear whether all parties concerned will buy off on the proposal.
As Chair of the Rural Fire Protection Working Group, on Dec. 5 Assemblyman Jeffries conducted a meeting in Sacramento to hear from representatives of Cal Fire, the Department of Corrections, the State Sheriffs Association, and the County State Association of Counties. The meeting was also attended by a bi-partisan group of legislators concerned about wildland firefighting issues, according to Greene.
"The agencies are very aware of the problem," Greene said, although he admitted there isn't concensus on the best way forward, citing concerns by counties of the costs levied on them if they choose to participate in the program.
"It's a complicated issue," Greene said.