California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday making it easier for formerly incarcerated people who served on inmate firefighting squads to turn that experience into a career when they’re freed from prison.
His approval of the measure comes after more than 2 million acres have burned across the state, overwhelming the state’s emergency responders and underscoring the need for more firefighters.
But there’s a whole pool of already trained candidates that the state hasn’t been able to draw from. Many formerly incarcerated people who once worked on inmate firefighting squads for as little as $3 a day have been ineligible to apply for an EMT license, which is required by the vast majority of California’s fire agencies, simply because they have a felony conviction.
“This bill that I’m about to sign will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they’ve been trained,” Newsom said during a press conference moments before signing the bill.
With Newsom’s signature, the state will now speed up the process by which those former inmates can request that their criminal records be expunged and clear the way for them to pursue a new career on the front lines of California’s fires.
The bill will help thousands of prisoners “that are on the front lines, that are near the end of their time in prison, that are getting credits, and want the opportunity,” Newsom said.
There are roughly 2,500 inmates currently trained in fighting fires. Last year, more than 400 helped battle the massive Kincade Fire in Sonoma County. The low pay those inmates earn coupled with the barriers they’ve faced when seeking firefighting work outside prison have long made the program controversial.
The bill was proposed by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, who noted the policy will help people Californians have already put their trust in.
“These individuals are vetted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, under CDCR’s strict criteria, and they assist with protecting communities all across this state during our fire seasons which have become more frequent and more deadly,” she said in a statement earlier this summer. “If we are willing to allow an incarcerated person to volunteer and help fight fires - protecting lives and property while putting their lives at risk; then we should be willing to allow those same individuals an opportunity to receive an expungement which can be granted after judicial review.”