Liberal policies in California have created a whole wave of prison releases. As things like drug laws become marijuana friendly, fewer inmates are completing sentences for both selling and possessing drugs. Beyond the push for California to become a “green” state for weed users, there were also significant changes to the prison system that pushed many offenders out of prison early.
Lawsuits concerning the medical care and overcrowding in California prisons forced officials to drastically cut back on the number of people in their prisons. Those running the prisons had to release up to 27% of their general population, and this usually meant letting low-level offenders out of jail or prison early. This seemed to be a win for the liberal state until they recently discovered a scary by-product of these “get out of jail free” cards.
As several wildfires burn out of control in the state, officials scramble to fight them. While the state has been very liberal when it comes to things like legalizing marijuana and setting low-level offenders free before their time, they have not always been liberal when it comes to the way they use prisoner labor. The state depends on the cheap labor of felons to fight fires in the area.
The state program that allows certain offenders to leave the prison grounds for days at a time to fight fires for dollars each day dates back to World War II. In October, the state used 1,700 felons to battle wildfires.
To qualify for the chance to fight fires, these felons need to qualify to work off-site. This means these offenders are low-level and non-violent offenders. Inmates with violent crimes, sex offenders or other higher-level crimes would not be eligible.
Eligible inmates can apply to complete training to become firefighters. This is a program that often allows inmates the chance to gain employment skills they can use after they get out of jail. Many ex-offenders go on to work in the industry.
The offenders who are going to prison for low-level crimes are coming out with real-world training. They are also helping the local community as they put out fires. The state does benefit from long-running programs that ignore issues tied to the meager wages the felons receive when compared to the amount of danger they face on the job. This type of program does not seem to align with many more liberal concerns with fair wages and safety.
While these offenders can make a difference in their communities, they are also the same group that is currently avoiding jail time due to changing state policies. Each time the state moves to keep more felons out of the system, they put communities at risk as there are fewer firefighters available. As the local demand for criminals to work fires skyrockets, the open pool of working firefighters has dropped by 13%.
Even as the state pushed to free more felons, they have not made any efforts to update their policies concerning where they draw those fighting wildfires from. They have made no effort to increase the resources available to pay professional firefighters and scramble to figure out how to cover the recent fires with fewer felons.
The same felons that fill the fire lines are the first to become eligible for things like early release or in some cases to avoid jail time altogether. In the 1990s and 2000s, California prisons were known for overcrowding. There were countless attempts to ease this congestion by doing things like building a tent like cities and even cramming more beds in each prison.
As more and more arrests were made in response to growing level of crime in the state, the overcrowding hit a critical point. At one point in 2009, there were estimates that the lack of medical care in their system leads to one death each day.
These deaths ended in lawsuits and led to changes in the laws on the state. They were mandated to reduce the prison population by up to 40,000 inmates. This, of course, meant starting with the lower level criminals first, and this also meant setting many free that could have participated in programs like the fire training.
California is running out of firefighters as many felons serve no real time in prison. Neither the community or the felons gain much as these fires burn out of control. The release of prisoners and even changes in drug laws that made many avoid jail all together did have long-term negative impacts on the surrounding area.