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.

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