California's corrections chief is defending the state's use of inmates with violent pasts to fight drought-fueled wildfires, while promising to mend relations with critics who fear the prisoners create a public safety danger.
"This is not the time to do any retrenching with the fires we've been having — and there's no need to do any retrenching because there haven't been any problems," Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said.
A state senator and head of the union representing the state's professional firefighters are calling for investigations after the department revealed this week that about 1,400 of the state's 3,700 inmate firefighters have previous convictions for violent offenses. Corrections officials had said for years that only nonviolent prisoners were allowed in the program.
Beard said nothing has changed despite the disclosure.
"The kind of people we're putting out now are the kind of people we've been putting out for the last 10-15 years, and they've done well and I think have really helped the state of California in a difficult period of time," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Wednesday.