Dwindling inmate firefighter population forces California to hire more expensive crews

Local News

(KTXL) – Governor Gavin Newsom is looking to hire firefighters to battle the inevitable threat of statewide firefights since the inmate firefighter population in California has dwindled in numbers.

Local law enforcement told FOX40 Sunday that the ramp-up in firefighters will cost the state millions compared to the historically low-cost inmate firefighter program but it’s an issue they saw coming.

“It’s really sad that it’s come to this,” said Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, who is also president of the California State Sheriffs’ Association. “We knew that realigning state prison inmates to county jail was absolutely going to have an impact on the inmate firefighters.” 

The inmate firefighter program sent low-level prison inmates to fire camps, where they would learn how to fight fires, especially wildland fires.

Robinson said elections and legislation have had its consequences.

“Between realignment and Prop 47, and Prop 57, we’ve gotten to the point where the state prison inmate population has dwindled, and the local jail population is now made up of inmates awaiting state prison and inmates that don’t qualify to go to fire camp,” Robinson explained. 

Proposition 47 recategorized some nonviolent offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies while Proposition 57 allows parole consideration for nonviolent felons.

Both were approved by voters.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones didn’t agree with the move:

The truth is if (the state) kept more people in prison and weren’t so concerned about releasing all of their inmates, which their population is now at historic lows, they would have plenty of people for fire crews. Now, they want to spend hundreds of millions of dollars for new fire crews…  So, we will be replacing nearly free labor with expensive firefighters, which will offset the savings we were promised from these programs in the first place.

Sheriff Scott Jones

At one point, Cal Fire had 168 hand crews, the majority of them coming from the state’s prison system. As of Sunday, there are 51.

According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the number of the incarcerated, housed in the state’s Conservation Camp Program by the end of 2011, was 4,098. As of February 2021, there are 1,451.

“This isn’t about us vs. the firefighters. We absolutely love and them. And appreciate the work that they do. And we understand that they’re in a bind. They do not have enough help right now. And something has to be done,” Robinson said.

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