SAN FRANCISCO — Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed a bill allowing prisoners who fight fires while incarcerated to have their records expunged after serving time so they have an easier path to becoming regular firefighters upon release.
The bill addresses the emergence of an unexpected social justice issue this summer as massive wildfires during a pandemic exposed California’s longtime reliance on inmates to suppress fires.
CA AB2147 (19R), by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes (D-Grand Terrace), lets prisoners who served in a state firefighting camp or on a county fire hand crew apply to the court to dismiss their convictions so they can qualify as EMTs, a necessary step to becoming a firefighter.
The law “will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they’ve been trained,” Newsom said upon signing the bill Friday in Oroville, where the North Complex Fire has burned 250,000 acres and 10 people have died. The bill excludes those convicted of certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, arson or any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.
The state released thousands of inmates early this spring to clear cramped prisons and reduce Covid-19 exposure risks — particularly lower-risk offenders who might normally serve in fire camps. Hundreds of rare lightning strikes across the state in August then put severe demands on California’s firefighting force, and the state acknowledged that its inmate crews were thinner this year due to the releases.
About 3,100 inmates helped fight fires last year. While California has long relied on inmates to fight fires, social justice efforts were full steam this summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and advocates seized on California’s use of prisoners as a serious problem.
The bill is intended to provide a quicker path for inmate fire crew members to become professional firefighters, which advocates said was a matter of fairness for those who serve their time and demonstrate their abilities.
“Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism,” Reyes said in a statement. “We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around.”
But law enforcement members and prosecutors opposed the bill, arguing that those who serve time in prisons have already been deemed a higher risk and would pose a danger to the public.