Fire season is upon us and Firefighter Crew 13-3 is ready to swing into action. But Crew 13-3 isn’t the firefighting crew you imagine. Crew 13-3 is an inmate firefighting crew, stationed in Malibu, is one of many inmate crews stationed throughout California. You might be surprised to learn that there are approximately 4,000 inmate firefighters in California. Depending on the location, that makes up between 50 to 80 percent of all ground firefighting crews. The job is offered to inmates who volunteer and are physically able. Most inmates who qualify are incarcerated for low-level crimes, often associated with drug- or alcohol-related offenses. Both men and women serve these crews and, as you might suspect, the work is dangerous and the pay is low.

This program, known as the Conservation Camp Program, has been around since 1946. It is estimated to save California tax payers roughly $100 million a year because the inmate crews are paid a maximum of $2.56 a day—far less than a civilian firefighter is paid. But the work comes with some perks. The inmates aren’t incarcerated in prison; rather, they live in “Conservation Camps” that are more like retreats than prison. The food is good, the scenery is often exquisite, family visits are allowed, and some camps have vegetable gardens, yoga and meditation sessions, among other amenities that most prison inmates don’t enjoy. There is a camaraderie among the inmates that is not found in a traditional prison and many of the inmates report great satisfaction from the work.

The state recognizes that prison incarceration often fails to rehabilitate the defendant. And in the state’s self-interest, the state also recognizes that incarcerating criminals whose crimes were not violent, puts a burden on the prison system. Alternative sentencing schemes are available to address both of these problems. This Conservation Camp Program is one of many alternative sentencing options that are available to persons convicted of crimes in California.

Alternative sentencing options may include enrollment in residential rehabilitation facilities, home detention, work release programs, and electronic monitoring programs. Counties often have their own programs, which many judges and prosecutors not only prefer as sentencing alternatives but promote. In Orange County, for example, there are several alternative sentencing options for those convicted of drug- or alcohol-related crimes. Some of these programs require treatment in a residential facility with firm guidelines and requirements designed to address the root causes of the drug abuse or alcohol abuse that got the defendant in trouble with the law. Other programs are similarly designed but allow the offender to live at home and even keep their job. For some first-time drug offenders, the penal code offers an alternative sentence under Penal Code 1000, which if successfully completed, will result in the complete dismissal of the drug charge.

There are even special programs for veterans. Recognizing the disabilities of posttraumatic stress disorder and other disorders many veterans suffer after serving on the battlefield, California has a special court that endeavors to offer alternatives to incarceration for first-time offenders who previously served in war. Rather than incarceration, therapeutic treatment and social services, all under the oversight of the court, is offered to qualified veterans who have violated the law

One of the biggest concerns my clients have is whether they will go to prison. My first line of defense is to get the charges dismissed or reduced, or in a jury trial, to get a not-guilty verdict. But when those results fail, my next concern is to get my client into an alternative sentencing program if he or she is eligible. Since there are many alternative sentencing programs in California, this is often possible and as the Conservation Camp Program demonstrates, there are even alternatives after the court has sentenced a convicted offender to state prison.

Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg is available for a free consultation. You may contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by email at