California drops plan to let violent inmates fight fires

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – California corrections officials on Tuesday dropped a plan to include prisoners with violent backgrounds in the nation’s largest and oldest inmate firefighting unit, a day after the proposal was first reported by The Associated Press.

The state still plans to expand the program to include inmates who have up to seven years left to serve on their sentences, instead of the current five years, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesman Jeffrey Callison told the AP.

But as for considering inmates who have been convicted of violent crimes, “We will not be changing that,” he said. “We’re not looking to expand the list of crimes that inmates have committed when considering who is eligible for fire camp service.”

The story drew nationwide attention as California endures four years of drought and a deadly fire season. Public safety concerns were raised by critics including the union representing state firefighters who oversee the inmates while they are fighting fires.

However, Callison denied that the publicity killed the proposal.

“Nothing was finalized, and even without the stories who knows what might have emerged?” he said.

The department continues to search for ways to increase the pool of potential firefighters, he said. The number has been falling in recent years because lower-level offenders are being sent to county jails instead of state prisons.

Currently about 3,800 inmates assist professional firefighters in California, but that is down from about 4,400 in previous years.

The department considers only inmates with no history of violent crimes, but had proposed adding inmates convicted of violent offenses such as assaults and robberies if they had attained a minimum-security classification after years of good behavior.

(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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