Editorial: They started a deadly fire, but prison isn’t the right answer

A firefighter sets back flames while battling a brush fire
A firefighter sets back flames from the El Dorado fire in Yucaipa in September.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

What should we do about Refugio Manuel Jimenez Jr. and Angela Renee Jimenez, the couple who set off a smoke bomb at their child’s gender-reveal party in Yucaipa last year, sparking the El Dorado fire that burned nearly 23,000 acres, killed a firefighter, forced tens of thousands of evacuations, injured 13 people and destroyed five homes?

Few more things are as arrogant and self-indulgent as a party at which parents-to-be announce the shape of their unborn child’s genitalia, and that’s even without setting off pink or blue incendiary devices in the midst of a severe drought and record-setting heat wave.

Given the level of destruction caused by the couple’s recklessness, it’s natural to want to throw the book at them. And in this case, the book consists of 30 charges, including involuntary manslaughter, that in the aggregate carry up to 30 years in prison, as announced Tuesday by the San Bernardino County district attorney. That ought to teach them, right?


Well, not necessarily.

Locking people up for long periods of time has become the default response to any action that society wants to punish. There are criminal laws for good reason (although not always good reasons for every criminal law), but prison time is best reserved for people who pose an ongoing danger to the rest of us, and those whose crimes are so beyond the pale — premeditated murder and violent sexual assault, for example — that other sanctions fall short of our notions of justice.

There are nonviolent crimes, too, for which prison time may be appropriate. Bernie Madoff’s financial fraud comes to mind, as do other economic crimes that rob and defraud consumers.

But given the damage caused and the contempt thrown in their direction (and the time they already have spent in jail), it’s unlikely in the extreme that the Jimenezes will be staging any more gender-reveal parties or setting off any more smoke bombs. They do not now put the rest of us in imminent harm — at least, not more than the average level of human foolishness. It would inflict pointless damage on them, and their future, to send them to prison, even for a year — and what about their child, who will one day come to know of the destruction their parents recklessly caused in his (or is it her?) name?

But still, justice requires some sanction, does it not? Most people are responsible, but for those who aren’t, we need law, and criminal sentences, to keep society whole.

The proper sentence in this case, and others like it, would be one that compels the couple and others to recognize the wrongness of their actions and to make those who were damaged as whole as possible. Fines? Community service? Thinkers and reformers have proposed an array of “restorative justice” practices that reject punishment and embrace repair. But these methods are tried at best on a boutique-type scale, and are often more satisfying in theory than in practice. As a society, we will have to up our game in this area, or else find ourselves resorting to costly and destructive incarceration only because we couldn’t figure out what else to do.