Last week, while driving up to Sonora, I noticed a giant pile of white trash bags in the grassy median of Highway 108-120. There must have been 50 or more, along with a sign that reads "Don't Trash California."
Caltrans is trying make a point by showing how much garbage its crews, along with Adopt-a-Highway volunteers, collected along that stretch of highway alone.
The agency is working under the naive assumption that it can shame people into not acting like pigs, to quit treating the highways like drive-by landfills, and to secure their trash so that it doesn't blow out of their pickup beds or out open windows.
Last week, the agency followed up with a press release stating that in one day, crews picked up 679 bags of trash on two stretches of highways in Stanislaus County: 99, between Whitmore Avenue and Mitchell Road, and Interstate 5, from the Merced County line to the Highway 140 junction.
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The most intriguing information, though, came at the bottom of the release:
"Last year, Caltrans spent more than $62 million in taxpayer dollars to pick up and dispose of 244,637 cubic yards of litter and debris along California highways and roadsides."
That's a lot of cash for trash. It leaves you to wonder, why Caltrans workers are picking up garbage when the jails and prisons are full of people who could be doing the honor to make up for their dishonor. Wouldn't that free Caltrans workers and some of that money to keep the pavement, not the roadsides, in the best possible condition?
Stanislaus County's jails would seem to be a good labor source. They're so crowded that some inmates, including convicted scammers and other nonviolent offenders, get to do their time through a home detention program that uses outdated electronic monitoring equipment.
Why not send them out to pick up trash along the highways instead? Dedicate any income they generate toward repaying their court costs or -- here's a novel idea -- restitution to their victims.
Guess what? It's not going to happen, at least not anytime soon in Stanislaus County. While inmate crews do a good job when sent to clean up county roads, facilities and other grounds, the county doesn't allow them to work along state highways for reasons involving liability.
The county covers inmates with worker compensation insurance, protecting the taxpayers in the event an inmate is injured on a job. Years ago, Stanislaus County leaders decided Caltrans should take on that risk if it wants to benefit from the county's inmate labor. Caltrans doesn't want to incur the cost.
"There's not enough money to pay the worker's comp," Caltrans spokeswoman Chantel Miller said.
Nor can the financially strapped state afford to reimburse the financially strapped county to pay for a deputy to supervise county inmates on a state job, she said.
Hence, Stanislaus County work program inmates might do windows at the sheriff's office and pick up sofas dumped along county roads, but they don't do state highways.
Likewise, Merced County limits its inmate work crews mainly to county jobs.
Benefits all around, SJ says
San Joaquin County does provide inmate labor to Caltrans, eating the workers comp costs, Safety and Risk Manager Richard Pietz said. The sheriff and Board of Supervisors made that decision years ago.
"We haven't had any claims," Pietz said. "The state and county benefit from it. It gives us the opportunity to do early release through participation, and the state benefits from getting a cleaner highway."
Residents often ask local sheriffs, including Merced County's Mark Pazin, why they don't make jail tougher, citing the well-publicized practices of Maricopa County (Arizona) sheriff/folk hero Joe Arpaio. He reinstituted chain gangs -- women included. He banned coffee, salt and pepper from the jails, saving $20,000 a year, according to reports. He feeds inmates oxidized green bologna and other budget foods (I suspect you don't want to know the expiration dates), again cutting jail costs.
Inmates who want to watch TV get to choose between the local access channel, Animal Planet, The Weather Channel, A&E, CNN and, of course, the ever-popular Disney Channel. (Can't you envision a bunch of hardened criminals locked in on an episode of "That's So Raven"?)
When they complain about their tent accommodations in the Arizona heat, he points out that American soldiers endure the same conditions while also ducking bullets and mortars. Jail inmates should just deal with it.
Sheriffs don't have that kind of latitude in litigation-happy California, though, Pazin said.
"If I had it my way, they'd all be out there hacking weeds, picking up trash and whatever else I can find for them to do," Pazin said. "Once they're remanded to the custody of the sheriffs, we're hamstrung by state laws. We can't really force 'em to do anything."
Indeed, inmates can volunteer for work programs to reduce their time in jail. Or they can opt to do their time on their bunks or by hanging out in the jail yards.
The lucky ones get to stay home -- or not -- wearing electronic ankle bracelets.
In the meantime, litterbugs will continue to decorate the highways.
And Caltrans will continue to pick up the trash and the tab.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.