The deadly fire at Angeles National Forest is renewing a push from California lawmakers for a national registry of convicted arsonists.
Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein filed legislation last Thursday that would establish the registry. It complements a similar bill backed by Reps. Mary Bono Mack, a Republican, and Adam Schiff, a Democrat, which has been in a House Judiciary subcommittee since March.
Currently, only three states maintain a database of convicted arsonists: California, Illinois and Montana. Investigators acknowledge that a nationwide registry would help them solve only a small percentage of arsons, but many still consider the investment worthwhile, particularly for keeping tabs on serial arsonists.
“It’s not going to solve every arson-related thing. It’s not meant to do that,” said William Soqui, chief of the fire department in Cathedral City, Calif., which is about 110 miles east of Los Angeles. “It’s meant to give investigators another tool, to help them narrow down the list of suspects and to keep track of these people who have been convicted of a crime.”
The Congressional Budget Office last year estimated costs of about $17 million over five years to set up and maintain the kind of arson registry sought by California lawmakers.
The fire near Los Angeles began on Aug. 26 and is still burning. It destroyed 89 houses and killed two firefighters, who died when their truck plunged down a ravine as they fled the flames. Investigators say the cause of the fire was arson.
“Sadly, this isn’t the first time an arsonist has set a wildfire in California that took innocent lives and destroyed vast amounts of wilderness and property,” Feinstein said in a statement. “This is simply unacceptable. We need to give law enforcement the tools it needs to keep track of criminal arsonists.”
Another arson fire in October 2006 killed five U.S. Forest Service firefighters and led Mack and Schiff to push for a national registry. The bill passed the House in December 2007 but stalled in the Senate.
Schiff said his support for a national registry stems from his experience as a federal prosecutor. One of his cases involved a suspect who set forest fires by taping matches to burning cigarettes and then throwing the bundle into the brush. By the time the matches ignited and the brush caught fire, he was long gone. After the suspect’s arrest, officials discovered a previous conviction involving the same method.
“The records we found in preparation for trial were in a box in the probation officer’s basement,” Schiff said. “If we can get those records into a system, then we can track down some of these repeat offenders.”
The current House bill states the registry would contain the Social Security number and address of the arsonist, his or her place of employment, a description of their vehicles, a photograph, a set of finger and palm prints as well a physical description and a description of the criminal offense.
First-time offenders would remain on the registry for five years, two-time offenders for 10 years and anyone convicted of three or more offenses would remain on the registry for life. Those required to be included on the database will have to verify their registration at least once a year.
The legislation makes the Justice Department responsible for maintaining a national arsonist and bomber Internet site. States would get a boost in federal grants to help them offset the cost of setting up and maintaining their own registry and a cut of up to 10 percent if they don’t.
The states’ arson registries will be more limited than those used for convicted sex offenders because names cannot be made available to the public, as happens with sex offenders. Also, the bill contains no restrictions on where a convicted arsonist can live.
Nationally, there were nearly 63,000 arsons in 2008, with the average loss of property valued at about $16,000.
The International Association of Arson Investigators backs the concept of an arson registry. The main concern among the various firefighter associations was cost.
“We’ve heard no one say this is a terrible idea. We’ve always heard, ‘How are you going to pay for it?” said Steve Austin, director of government relations for the organization. “Mandates are mandates, but they’re easier to swallow when they come with money.”
The bill is H.R. 1759.
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