New California law — Assembly Bill No. 2147 — helps inmate firefighters gain employment once released

inmate firefightersCalifornia’s inmate firefighters, who have risked their lives for little pay fighting some of the worst fires in the state’s history, will now upon release be able to gain employment in jobs, including firefighting, that require occupational licensing.

This comes thanks to California Assembly Bill No. 2147, sponsored by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) that was passed in the state’s assembly and senate on Aug 20. It covers inmates who successfully participated in the California Conservation (Fire) Camp Program or a county incarcerated individual hand crew.

Benefits under new law

With certain exceptions, including sex offenses and some violent felonies, the new law proclaims that those leaving prison:

  • Will be given court-ordered “early termination of probation, parole, or supervised release.”
  • Will “not be required to disclose the conviction on an application for licensure by any state or local agency.”
  • Will be able “to withdraw the plea of guilty (for their conviction) and enter a plea of not guilty.”

“Signing AB 2147 into law is about giving second chances,” Assemblymember Reyes says. “Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career, is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those who show the determination and commitment to turn their lives around.”

AB 2147 offers new job opportunities

California is the first state in the nation to sign this type of law offering relief to previously incarcerated individuals who worked as inmate firefighters.

And it’s well deserved. According to the California Dept. of Corrections and Rehabilitation, there are about 2,200 inmate firefighters working at fire camps annually. And 250 of them are women. This year, however, there were about 500 fewer overall, due to the early release of some inmates because of the Coronavirus. According to San Francisco NPR affiliate KQED, the inmates receive between $2.90 and $5.12 per day, depending on their skill level, with an extra $1 per hour when they are deployed to an actual emergency.

AB 2147 allows those who participated in a state or county fire camp to apply for expungement upon release. As a result, they will be able to seek a variety of jobs, including those that require an occupational license.

Occupational licensing necessary for many jobs

In California nearly 200 occupations require licensing from one of the state’s 42 government departments and agencies. An estimated 2.5 million California workers (nearly 20% of the state’s workforce) need an occupational license to work. These include an EMT (emergency medical technician) license that most fire departments require of their firefighter candidates, a license that can be extremely difficult to acquire with a felony conviction.

California’s Governor Gavin Newsom wholeheartedly supported this legislation, as it will give thousands of “heroic” individuals who are incarcerated and also firefighters real opportunity and hope, knowing that they have the right to later work as a professional firefighter.

AB 2147 will become state law on Jan. 1, 2021.

Inability to obtain occupational licensing helps prevent ex-offenders from getting jobs

Occupational licensing

A barber license is just one type of license denied to those with a criminal record by some states.

As if those leaving prison and jails don’t have enough problems finding employment, there’s one more challenge they face. An estimated total of at least one-quarter of all U.S. jobs require some type of licensing. And people with criminal records are prohibited from obtaining many of these licenses.

Not only can they not work in a vast variety of positions that require licensing, but those who have a criminal record can’t start their own businesses in the restricted occupations. And in many cases, it doesn’t even matter if the crime committed has any relevance to the type of work for which the license is required.

Occupational licensing is determined at the state level, and an estimated 32,000 laws nationwide related to occupational and business licensing include a consideration of criminal records. These laws are listed in the National Bar Association National Inventory of Collateral Causes of Conviction.

The inventory is catalogued and searchable by state, offering a list of all the applicable laws and exactly what they prohibit. It’s an excellent source for those who would like to know if they can – or cannot – pursue licensing for a particular job in a particular state.

The number and scope of the laws provide a serious impediment to those with criminal records and those in reentry trying to get back on their feet. They’re also a detriment to society, with states spending millions of dollars to pay for the cost of re-incarceration.

States with heaviest licensing burdens show highest recidivism rates

Turning Shackles into Bootstraps: Why Occupational Licensing Reform Is the Missing Piece of Criminal Justice Reform, a study done by Stephen Slivinski, senior research fellow at the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty, W.P. Carey College of Business, Arizona State University, focused on the relationship between three-year recidivism rates and occupational licensing restrictions affecting those with criminal records.

The study’s research “estimates that between 1997 and 2007 the states with the heaviest occupational licensing burdens saw an average increase in the three-year, new-crime recidivism rate of over 9%. Conversely, the states that had the lowest burdens and no such character provisions saw an average decline in that recidivism rate of nearly 2.5%.”

State laws reform licensing restrictions

Although the problem remains, several states are taking action to reform licensing laws to give those with criminal records more opportunities.

For example, last year Illinois passed HB5973 that, according to the bill, “allows the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation to consider an applicant’s prior conviction or convictions, but provides that the conviction or convictions may not be the sole basis for refusing to issue a license unless the crime substantially and directly relates to the occupation for which the license is sought.”

In April, the governor of Kentucky signed SB120 into law. The bill removes automatic bans for felons seeking professional/occupational licenses and guarantees that those who are refused a license be granted a hearing.

Connecticut, another state making legal reforms, passed HB5764 into law in July. The new law removes criminal history restrictions from the licensing of barbers and hair dressers.

While these are just a few examples, they give an idea of what can and needs to be done by the states on a much broader level. Stakeholders who deal with those incarcerated and in reentry may want to organize and influence elected officials to change any existing laws requiring licenses that create barriers to employment.

By lifting restrictions to licensing for those with criminal records, those struggling to reestablish their lives after leaving prison or jail will have more opportunities to find employment and more jobs to choose from.


Illinois and New Hampshire laws aid victims of human trafficking

Girl with a bar-code

Victims of human trafficking are often tattooed against their will with such things as a barcode.

New laws passed in recent months in Illinois and New Hampshire will help victims of human trafficking begin to mend themselves and get their lives back together.

Many trafficked victims, especially those trafficked for sex, are tattooed with what looks like a barcode, declaring the wearer the property of the criminal who engaged them in the practice.

In Illinois, House Bill 5858, introduced by Illinois State Representative John D. Anthony (R-Morris) and sponsored by Illinois State Senator Michael Connelly (R-Naperville), passed unanimously in both the Illinois House and the Illinois Senate in April and May.

The legislation allows licensed tattoo businesses to remove tattoos from minors who were former gang members and/or victimized by human trafficking or sexual or other servitude. Under the previous law, tattoos artists could not perform work, including tattoo removal, on minors without the presence of a parent or guardian.

Last year Illinois legislators passed Illinois House Bill 2640, sponsored by Illinois State Representative Kelly Burke (D-Evergreen Park) and effective at the beginning of 2014, that allows victims of human trafficking who have been branded by their trafficker to be reimbursed for the cost of the tattoo removal treatments through the Illinois Crime Victims Compensation Fund. This fund was originally created to reduce the financial burdens imposed on victims of violent crime and their families.

“Victims of human trafficking have endured unimaginable trials, and they cannot truly break free if they still bear the physical reminders of such a painful experience,” Burke said. “Helping to remove the tattoos that were forced on them, and literally branded them as property, is essential to helping these individuals live with the freedom and dignity they deserve.”

Meanwhile, this year New Hampshire voted in New Hampshire Senate Bill 317, landmark legislation passed unanimously in both the New Hampshire State Senate and the New Hampshire State House, a rare event in The Granite State. This broad-based law increases criminal penalties for the sex trafficking of minors and protects the victims of sex trafficking from  criminal prosecution.

As a result of passage of the bill, victims can now sue their trafficker for damages within 20 years of being trafficked. Victims will also now be paid for the removal of such identifying tattoos as barcodes  with funds from the New Hampshire Victims Compensation Fund.

New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan signed the bill on July 25, and it will go into effect 90 days after that.


Reauthorization of Second Chance Act can help reduce recidivism

U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) (above) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced legislation to reauthorize the Second Chance Act.

U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) (above) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have introduced legislation to reauthorize the Second Chance Act.

In an effort that shows tremendous bipartisan support, U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced legislation last month to reauthorize the Second Chance Act. An identical bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressmen Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.)

The act, originally passed into law in 2008, supports state and local reentry programs that reduce recidivism. The introduction of the current bill – S. 1690/H.S. 3465 – comes at a time when the Senate Judiciary Committee is considering ways to reduce prison costs for federal, state and local governments. The Second Chance Act intends to help lower those costs by improving prisoner reentry efforts and ultimately decreasing the number of repeat offenders.

“Rather than incarcerating repeat offenders in the same families generation after generation, we can put our taxpayer dollars to better use to break this vicious cycle and turn lives around,” said Portman, a former prosecutor.  “The ultimate goal of our criminal justice system is to make our families and our communities safer. The work done under the Second Chance Act helps us to accomplish that goal, one life at a time.”

Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 provisions

The Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013 reauthorizes the law for five more years. Key provisions include:

  • Providing support for planning and implementation of key reentry projects to ensure that those projects use methods proven through testing and review to lead to meaningful reductions in recidivism rates.
  • Offering grant funding for creative job training programs.
  • Expanding eligible applicants for several programs to include nonprofit organizations.

Emphasizing results-oriented outcomes, the bill gives priority consideration to applicants that conduct individualized post-release employment planning, demonstrate connections to employers within the local community, or track and monitor employment outcomes.

In reintroducing the Second Chance Act, Senator Leahy reaffirmed his belief in its goals. “Investing in community-based reentry programs prevents crime, reduces prison costs, improves public safety and saves taxpayer dollars.  It is also the right thing to do,” he said.

“This important legislation improves federal reentry policy and funds collaborations between state and local corrections agencies, nonprofits, educational institutions, service providers and families to ensure that former offenders have the resources and support they need to become contributing members of the community. “

If reauthorized, the act will continue to build on its success. Thanks to this legislation, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Office of Juvenile Justice was able to fund more than 100 grants that totaled more than $62 million during the current fiscal year. And since it was passed five years ago, it has awarded more than 600 grants to government agencies and nonprofit groups.

These grants support improved probation, parole and reentry programs throughout the U.S. and include mental health and substance abuse treatment initiatives, technology career training programs and juvenile reentry efforts.

Second Chance Act success stories

Some of these programs funded by grants under the Second Chance Act offer examples of what they can accomplish:

  1. Harlem Parole Reentry Court – This project under the auspices of the Center for Court Innovation of the New York City Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator is geared to those who are of medium to high risk of reoffending. It works with case managers, judges and others to develop an individualized reentry plan stressing employment, and the program’s participants have higher employment rates than their peers who aren’t enrolled.
  2. Project Reconnect – This program, operated by the Girls Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma, helps incarcerated women who will be returning to Tulsa upon release maintain contact with their 5- to 18-year-old children. It does this by bringing those children for bi-weekly visits with their mothers and on the weeks in between offers parenting classes to the women and educational instruction to their children.
  3. Wisconsin Tribal Community Reintegration Program – The Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, together with the state’s Department of Corrections, has created this program to provide culturally relevant social services focusing on employment, substance abuse and legal issues. It serves American Indians who are deemed to be of medium to high risk of reoffending and will be returning to one of Wisconsin’s three Indian nations – the Oneida, Menominee or Stockbridge-Munsee.

What you can do

Reauthorizing this act is expected to continue to make profound and positive improvements in neighborhoods across the nation and in the lives of those in reentry who live there.

Contact your senators and Congress members and encourage them to cosponsor S. 1690/H.R. 3465, the Second Chance Reauthorization Act of 2013.