Pubdate: Sun, 19 Jul 2015
Source: Appeal-Democrat (Marysville, CA)
Copyright: 2015 Appeal-Democrat
Author: Thomas D. Elias


"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley." Robert 
Burns in his 1785 poem "To a Mouse."

Bobby Burns couldn't have known it, but as California approaches what 
many experts forecast to be the worst wildfire season on record, his 
description of how good intentions can go awry, not always turning 
out as planned, might come into play here soon.

Nothing but good intentions was contained in last year's Proposition 
47, which passed by an overwhelming 59-41 percent margin and has 
since seen the release of almost 4,000 inmates from state prisons and 
about the same number from county jails. They were paroled or 
otherwise freed because the initiative converted drug use and 
possession, plus some other previous felony crimes, into misdemeanors 
with much lighter sentences.

Each year down the line, too, about 40,000 offenders who would 
otherwise have been convicted of felonies will now be found guilty of 

What does all of this have to do with the impending fire season, to 
be fueled by millions of acres of wildlands thoroughly parched by 
almost five years of drought?

It's this: While fire engines heading hundreds of miles from their 
home bases toward serious blazes are familiar sights to anyone 
driving California highways in fire season, every county and the 
state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as 
CalFire, also depends on ThomasD. Eliaswrites onCalifornia 
politicsand otherissues. thousands of state prison and county jail 
inmates to battle the worst conflagrations. About 4,000 participated last year.

These crews draw from the trustiest of prisoners. They must be 
serving a minimum of 15 to 18 months to make training them 
worthwhile. They must have no history of gang-related, sexual or 
violent crimes.

Because fire bases are much less secure than prisons, jails or other 
penal camps, they can't have any history of escape attempts. These 
are almost exclusively low-level offenders. Basically, the very sort 
of prisoners most likely to see sentences shortened by Proposition 47.

No one is quite certain yet how much that will cut into the pool of 
suitable prisoners available for fire duty, which sees inmates 
leaving secure facilities up to four days a week even when there's no 
fire crisis. If there's no fire to work, they often clear brush and 
perform other fire prevention and mitigation duties.

It's an aspect of convict life few if any voters considered before 
voting on Proposition 47. Yes, they heard a lot of about possible 
recidivism, speculation about how many of the newly released 
prisoners would be back in the justice system again soon for new offenses.

Predictions differed on that one, and so far, recidivism has varied 
widely, from as few as 9 percent of those released to some counties 
in the law's first three months of operation up to 60 percent in others.

The fear is that offenders smart enough to keep each haul of 
shoplifted goods or forged and deliberately bounced checks under $950 
will be back again and again, released each time because their crimes 
are small enough to be considered minor.

Of course, even if some of these folks slip up and steal enough to go 
back to jail or prison for a lowlevel felony, there's some question 
whether they'd be allowed onto fire crews, with their relative ease of escape.

And shifting thousands of prisoners away from the penal system was 
supposed to save untold millions of dollars. But more misdemeanor 
prosecutions have meant increased workloads for city attorneys who 
often handle those lower-level criminal cases.

If it reduces inmate fire crews, as expected at this time of 
anticipated great need for them, there will also be costs for hiring 
and training new firefighters.

It all adds up to a classic situation of the sort Bobby Burns 
decried. For sure, Proposition 47 is turning out to have wrinkles and 
expenses no one anticipated when laying its very well intentioned plan.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom