Monday, August 17, 2015

Living wages and government-owned ember coolers

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Living wages and family-owned tilapia suppliers. It was about a company called Quixotic Farming and its wonderful, environmentally friendly products that you can buy at your local semi-politically correct store chain. Quixotic Farming's wonderful prose, however, never mentioned that fact that their products were provided by people who don't get minimum wage, much less living wage.

Why? Because they're prisoners.

While there are certainly arguments in favor of such programs, Quixotic Farming didn't publicly address them, since it didn't even make an explicit mention of who their quixotic farmers actually are.

Well, I can't stand on my high horse and stick my tongue out at the evil people of Colorado. My own state of California is doing something similar, according to Mother Jones.

Between 30 and 40 percent of California's forest firefighters are state prison inmates.

However, this fact is not hidden; it's publicly known. And you aren't going to see Charles Manson out on the fire lines; the people on the fire lines are low-level felons. (People convicted of arson are obviously excluded from the program.) And Mother Jones notes the positive aspects of the program (as does Governor Jerry Brown):

At its best, the program is a win-win situation: Inmates learn useful skills and spend time outside the normal confines of prison, and the collaboration with Cal Fire saves the state roughly $80 million a year.

We'll return to that savings in a minute. But there are other benefits:

One benefit of the program is that it often breaks down racial barriers: "When people are incarcerated they tend to segregate by race," says Hadar Aviram, a law professor and criminologist at the University of California-Hastings. "The fire camps are not like that. People who do not associate with each other inside a prison are willing to be friends when they're at a fire camp."

However, like any program with specific financial benefits, the money can often skew decisions. There are people who believe that many of these low-level felons shouldn't really be in prison in the first place, but those who would usually champion reduction of sentences - specifically, just about any person who gets elected to statewide office in California - realize that prison reform causes other problems.

The concern was magnified last fall, when lawyers for state Attorney General Kamala Harris argued that extending an early prison-release program to "all minimum custody inmates at this time would severely impact fire camp participation—a dangerous outcome while California is in the middle of a difficult fire season and severe drought."

This is why it's always important to follow the money. If our anticipated El Niño doesn't wipe out our drought this winter, expect firefighters (but not firefighters' unions) to advocate increased low-level felony prison sentences to keep our homes from burning up.
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