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The NIMBYs of Malibu

Los Angeles County Fire Department officials were considering using a station in Malibu as a temporary replacement for a conservation camp on Mt. Gleason that was destroyed last summer by the devastating Station fire. But when residents of the beachfront city realized that the camp would be staffed by prison inmates, they began organizing to stop it. They succeeded Wednesday, when Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman announced that he would look elsewhere.

California’s conservation camps are one of the very few bright spots in a dysfunctional state corrections system, one of those rare government programs from which everybody benefits -- taxpayers, hillside dwellers and prisoners alike. Under the program, minimum-security inmates who have no history of violent crime can qualify to serve at fire stations, where they’re overseen by prison guards and county firefighters. The inmates are paid about $1 an hour and can earn two days off their sentences for every day served; these prisoners have fought many of the state’s biggest wildfires and saved lives and property along the way, at a fraction of the taxpayer cost of regular firefighters. Some inmates benefit from the training and get jobs as firefighters upon their release.

Malibu’s successful NIMBY campaign makes it tempting to suggest that the next time the historically fire-prone city goes up in flames, we should let it burn. Of course, that won’t and shouldn’t happen; not all coast dwellers are as irresponsible as the ones who halted the fire camp. But it does show how difficult it might prove for the state to implement its plan to build community detention centers.

In 2007, the Legislature approved $7.4 billion in bonds to add 53,000 prison and jail beds to cope with an overcrowding and healthcare crisis. Some of that money will be spent on 500-bed reentry facilities throughout the state, where inmates nearing the end of their terms will be sent. The hope is that these centers will reduce recidivism by helping prisoners make the transition from institutional life to the real world. We’ve been skeptical of this plan from the beginning, preferring strategies to reduce the inmate population over a prison construction program, but there’s little question that these reentry centers would provide prisoners with a better chance to go straight than they have now.

A few far-flung communities have already approved reentry centers, but none have been proposed yet for urban areas. If other cities follow the lead of Malibu -- too hysterical to accept felons in the neighborhood even when they’re protecting lives and homes -- it could be an uphill fight for the program.


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