California governor signs bill giving prisoners battling wildfires a shot at becoming pro firefighters

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California governor signs bill giving prisoners battling wildfires a shot at becoming pro firefighters

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Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday toured the area surrounding Lake Oroville in Northern California on Friday, which has hit hard by wildfires over the past several days. (Sept. 11)

AP Domestic

California’s governor passed a bill Friday that will give prisoners battling the state’s massive wildfires a chance to avoid a different battle after their release: That of finding a job.

Under California bill AB2147, Gov. Gavin Newsom is allowing certain prisoners who are on the front lines of wildfire containment to have their records expunged after serving their sentences. The goal is to make it easier for them to have a firefighting career after release.

Criminal records are often a bar to employment. Newsom said he wants to give the prisoners a shot at becoming firefighters and that removing their criminal history will make that more possible.

“California inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform,” Newsom tweeted Friday. “Inmates who have stood on the front lines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter.” 

Newsom signed the bill against a backdrop of grey ash and charred trees near Lake Oroville, site of one of the most devastating of the many fires that have charred the state in recent weeks. At least 20 people have died in the California wildfires, according to Cal Fire.

The bill excludes those convicted of certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, arson or any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.

CA’s inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform.

Inmates who have stood on the frontlines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter.

Today, I signed #AB2147 that will fix that. pic.twitter.com/15GJ7Gijt7

— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 11, 2020

California has been struggling in recent years to field enough inmate firefighters because of changes in state law that have reduced the number of lower-level offenders in state prisons. Court rulings also ended some of the incentives for inmates to risk their lives fighting fires when they could earn similar early release credits with less dangerous duties.

The shortage grew this year, as thousands more inmates were released early in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus through prisons, pushing the number of inmate firefighters down about 30% from last year.

The new law may create a new incentive, by allowing former inmate firefighters, after their release, to ask a judge to withdraw their plea of guilty. The judge could opt to then dismiss the accusations.

The expungement would give the former firefighters the ability to apply for any of more than 200 occupations that require a state license, an opportunity lost to most people with criminal records, according to Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino who authored the bill.

“These individuals have received valuable training and placed themselves in danger to defend the life and property of Californians,” she said in a legislative analysis. “Those individuals that successfully complete their service in the fire camps should be granted special consideration relating to their underlying criminal conviction.”

The district attorneys association had argued against the bill, saying that expungement of criminal records should be limited to lower-level offenders, few of whom remain in state prisons. It said the incentive should be limited to those who are sent to county jails and not state lockups.

Newsom’s twitter page received a fair amount of critics who don’t like the plan.

Felons before citizens, what’s new. Release 17k of your buddies and now get them a clear record.

Do people realize what it takes to actually be sent to prison in CA?

— Ray Dietrich 🇺🇸 (@raydietrichs) September 11, 2020

Others complimented the idea.

Finding employment for people when they get out of prison is the best way to prevent them from committing crimes that send them back to prison.

And having to house and feed prisoners is a massive taxpayer expense. We should be trying to get them out and productive.

— ocdtrekkie (@ocdtrekkie) September 11, 2020

Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2020/09/11/california-gov-gavin-newsom-signed-bill-give-prisoners-shot-becoming-firefighters-after-release/5775119002/

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