SAN DIEGO — The county transferred its first low-risk inmates to state-run firefighting camps Friday as part of a recently enacted program designed to bolster the San Diego area’s wildfire-suppression capability while simultaneously opening up much-needed jail space.
The offenders left the Vista Detention Facility before dawn en route to the training facilities in central California, according to county officials. Following a regimen of physical-fitness conditioning and skill building, they will return to help staff one of four local Department of Rehabilitation/Cal Fire inmate fire camps.
“Transferring some low-level inmates to fire camps serves public safety on two levels,” Sheriff Bill Gore said. “We help make sure local fire camps are staffed to fight wildfires, and we preserve jail space to keep serious criminals in custody.”
Since the county’s contract with the state for the inmate transfers was finalized late last month, the Sheriff’s Department has been screening offenders for the program.
Supervisor Dianne Jacob called the start of the inmate transfers “great news.”
“These low-risk offenders provide much-needed boots on the ground when wildfire hits, and they put more muscle into our efforts to manage overgrown brush in high-risk areas,” said Jacob, who joined Gore and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis last summer in initiating the program.
The agreement with the state was motivated by changes under prisoner realignment, or Assembly Bill 109. The 2011 measure to address overcrowding in state prisons changed sentencing laws so that some felons serve their time in county jails instead of state prisons.
As a consequence, local lockups are pushing capacity every day, while the state system no longer has enough low-risk offenders to staff its inmate fire camps.
The Sheriff’s Department will regularly identify additional low-level offenders who meet state and local criteria for the fire camps and transfer any qualified inmates on a biweekly basis. At any given time, about 50 to 100 inmates in local jails may qualify for transfer.
The county will pay the state $46.19 per day for each inmate transferred to fire camps.