Riverside County becomes first in state to allow inmate fire crews

Inmates will be non-violent offenders tasked with putting out wild fires

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Riverside County supervisors have approved a sheriff's department request to send jail inmates to work on California.

Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hand crews as a means of reducing the burden on the county's correctional system.

Riverside County will be the first in the state to take advantage of the program, which was established under Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act of 2011.

"I'm surprised we're the first in the state to embrace this. It's a good proposal with obvious benefits," said Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who brought the issue forward.

Under an agreement with the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, qualifying inmates serving time in county jails can be put to work fighting wildfires and performing other duties carried out by Cal Fire inmate hand crews.

There are 196 such crews throughout the state, 17 of them based in Riverside County.

"Minimum security" inmates selected to join the crews are housed in camps operated jointly by Cal Fire and the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation.

According to Riverside County Fire Department Chief John Hawkins, there are three camps countywide -- in Bautista Canyon, Norco and Oak Glen.

AB 109 allows counties' sheriffs, in cooperation with the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, to send inmates to the camps with the goal of relieving space in local correctional facilities and beefing up hand crews.

AB 109 has been blamed for a surge in Riverside County's inmate population. Under the realignment legislation, so-called "non-serious, non-violent" offenders convicted of felonies that do not stem from a sex crime are to serve their sentences in local detention facilities.

Proponents of realignment suggested that local jail sentences would be capped at three years, but that has not held true; some are serving terms in excess of 10 years.

In 2012, the sheriff's department released around 7,000 inmates -- the vast majority considered "low-level" offenders -- from custody to make space in the county's five correctional facilities, according to sheriff's documents.

Under a two-decade-old federal court decree, the sheriff is required to have a bed for each inmate; if not, he must make space for incoming prisoners.

Assistant Sheriff Steve Thetford told the Board of Supervisors today that assigning county jail inmates to hand crews would provide "a little relief" to overcrowding.

"The population is small that would be eligible for this program," Thetford said, suggesting less than four dozen individuals currently serving time in local jails might qualify.

All candidates have to be checked for physical and mental fitness and
undergo training before they can go to work on the fire lines.

The county will pick up the tab for housing inmates at the Cal Fire camps. According to Jeffries, the cost will total around $46.19 per day per inmate -- about $100 less than what it would cost per day to house someone in a county jail.

"This is important to us. It's important to citizens. We have to keep those inmate fire crews afloat," Hawkins told the board.

In addition to fighting fires, hand crews perform brush clearance ahead of fire season, provide maintenance in parks and at historic sites, as well as engaging in other forms of community service, according to Jeffries.

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