Smoke creeps over Silverton on Tuesday, Sept. 8. Winds pushed smoke from wildfires in the Cascades into the Willamette Valley, creating a sense closer to dusk that daylight. (Leslie Harvey/Special to Salem Reporter)

Prisoners who helped fight last year’s historic wildfires could have up to 12 months of their sentences reduced under a plan being considered by Gov. Kate Brown. But Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson said that would mean the release of people who’ve committed violent offenses and has signaled she’ll push back. 

In a letter sent to the Oregon Department of Corrections last week, the governor requested a list of prisoners who were deployed to fight last year’s wildfires. Brown said in her letter that she would consider reducing the sentences of prisoners who served on fire crews, have a record of good conduct for the last 12 months, have housing lined up post-release and have their health care needs adequately assessed.

“While these wildfires destroyed Oregonians’ homes and Oregon’s forests, many adults in custody—who qualified for participation in a fire crew due to good behavior and having received proper training—bravely fought these wildfires and helped prevent further destruction and loss of life across the state,” said Brown. “These adults in custody should be rewarded and acknowledged for their contribution to this historic firefighting response.” 

The Oregon Department of Forestry has operated a program since 1951 putting prisoners to work on forestry projects, including fighting fires. To serve on these crews, prisoners have to pass screening criteria. Other states have similar programs that have been lauded for reducing recidivism and helping prisoners learn skills. These programs have also drawn criticism for putting prisoners in dangerous positions while paying them less than minimum wage. 

Clarkson responded with a press release on Thursday stating that 16 of the 18 offenders from Marion County who could see their sentences reduced are serving time for serious crimes, some of which are covered by Oregon’s Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing law. 

“While these people may have assisted during a crisis, there is an important distinction between these offenders and our first responders and law-abiding community members who heroically did the same,” Clarkson said in a statement. “Each of these offenders has a victim who deserves justice. Each of these offenders chose to hurt another person.”

According to Clarkson, prisoners who could be released early have been convicted of offenses including first-degree manslaughter, kidnapping, first-degree assault with a firearm, first-degree robbery, second-degree assault, unlawful use of a weapon, domestic violence and felon in possession of a firearm. 

Clarkson said the early release of the prisoners “poses a risk to public safety and directly undermines the faith and confidence that victims have a right to expect in our criminal justice system.” She said she would inform the governor and the Department of Corrections that she objects to the release of any felon who has committed crimes involving violence or weapons. 

District Attorney spokeswoman Amy Queen said in an email that she couldn’t provide a list of names of offenders who could be released early until victims are notified. 

Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton said in an email that there are three prisoners on the governor’s list from Polk County. 

“ I have great concern about individuals convicted of violent person crimes being released into the community and having significant portions of their sentences reduced without greater notice to the victims or public safety partners,” he said. “It further erodes the integrity of sentences imposed by judges.”

Liz Merah, spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email that the prisoners who could be eligible for reduced sentences already had to pass screening criteria to serve on fire crews. 

To serve on the crews, prisoners are required to have records of good behavior and are within four years of release, she said. The Department of Corrections must also determine that prisoners do not pose public safety risks to serve on the crews, she said. 

Merah said the governor’s office doesn’t expect many of these prisoners to have committed Measure 11 offenses. She said the Department of Corrections will conduct a review of each prisoner who is eligible that’ll include feedback from community corrections and district attorneys. A list of prisoners eligible for a reduced sentence should be completed by April 16, she said. 

UPDATE: This story has been updated with comment from Polk County District Attorney Aaron Felton.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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