"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley."
— Robert Burns in his 1785 poem “To a Mouse.”
Robbie 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 were 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.
The prisoners 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 misdemeanors.
What does all 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 depend on 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 low-level felony, there’s some question whether they’d be allowed onto fire crews, with their relative ease of escape. That’s often judged case by case. So recidivism may not help replenish the inmate firefighting pool depleted by Proposition 47.
And there’s the fact that the initiative was sold in part as a money saver. 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, increasing pressure to expand their staffs.
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 civilian 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.