After an inmate firefighter allegedly stole a firetruck in Northern California in what appeared to be a bid to escape, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer on Thursday lambasted the state corrections agency for allowing him to be assigned to the firefighting crew.
Inmate Cameron Zoltan Horvath, 31, was battling a firework-ignited brush fire in El Dorado County on July 4, when he stole a fire engine, crashed it through chain link fences and damaged other vehicles before getting stuck in a ditch, officials said.
The inmate was serving a 10-year prison sentence for a series of carjackings in Orange County, including stealing a sheriff’s patrol car and leading officers on a pursuit, according to the DA’s office.
“It is unconscionable that the very entity responsible for housing dangerous felons continues to allow these same violent felons back into our communities and expect them to miraculously be less dangerous because they are dressed in firefighting gear instead of a prison uniform,” Spitzer said in a statement. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Spitzer criticized the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for not screening felons to make sure those convicted of violent felonies don’t end up in minimum-security inmate fire crews.
CDCR told KTLA that what happened with Horvath was an “isolated” incident and is under investigation. The agency stressed that the incident isn’t reflective of the program or its participants who volunteer to fight the fires across the state.
“The actions of one person should not overshadow the crucial and difficult work many of our incarcerated handcrews do to protect the state from wildfires and other disasters,” the agency said in a statement. “When not fighting fires, camps participants perform invaluable conservation and community service projects such as clearing brush and fallen trees to reduce the chance of fire, maintaining parks, sand bagging, flood protection and reforestation. They work hard to serve their time productively and give back to the state and their local communities.”
CDCR said Horvath will no longer be eligible to participate in the firefighting program.
Current rules restrict inmates convicted of sexual offenses, arson or any history of escape with force or violence from joining the fire crews, according to the CDCR.
But Spitzer says that’s not enough.
“Those minimal restrictions allow convicted felons sent to state prison for violent felonies including carjacking, armed robbery, weapons/firearms offenses and even attempted murder to serve on inmate firefighting crews while serving time in state prison,” the DA said.
He called it “a thinly veiled attempt to shorten the sentences of dangerous criminals and get them out of prison and back on the streets as quickly as possible.”
In September last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law giving inmate firefighters in the state’s program an expedited expungement pathway.
The firefighter inmates become eligible to apply to expunge their record after their release from custody, but it’ll be up to a court to decide on the matter.
There are about 1,600 inmates working at 35 fire conservation camps statewide. The camps are operated by CDCR, Cal Fire and the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
They’re all considered minimum-security facilities, so inmates who volunteer to join the program must have “minimum custody” status, a classification given based on their good behavior in prison, their conforming to rules and participation in rehabilitative programming, according to CDCR.
Some inmates end up working for Cal Fire or the U.S. Forest Service after their release, according to the state corrections agency.
“It is important to note that the act of one individual is not reflective of the conservation camp program at CDCR, or its participants, who volunteer for this program, and have to meet numerous criteria in a manner that is consistent with public safety,” CDCR said in a statement.