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

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

State Governor Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law last week, a move highly praised by criminal justice reform advocates.

Owing to a decades-old program, inmates in California are often expected to join firefighters on the frontlines to battle fires. Previously, their time and efforts would not have counted towards employability in the future. However, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last Friday a bill to give prisoners currently battling the state's wildfires an opportunity to become professional firefighters once they are released, Yahoo! News reports. The bill has been highly praised by criminal justice reform activists and is expected to help thousands of inmates tackle the difficult task of getting a job once they complete serving their prison sentence.



 

California bill AB2147 allows certain prisoners who are currently on the front lines trying to contain the state's wildfires to have their records expunged after they have served their sentences. Not all firefighters will be eligible under this program; those who have been convicted of certain crimes, such as murder, kidnapping, rape, arson, or any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment will be excluded. The new law, which will erase a former inmate firefighter's criminal record, is also expected to create a new incentive for them. It permits former inmate firefighters, following their release, to ask a judge to withdraw their plea of guilty. The judge could then choose to dismiss the accusations.



 

 

Once the former prisoner's criminal record is expunged, they will have the ability to apply for any of over 200 occupations that require a state license. This is an opportunity that most people with criminal records lose out on, Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, a San Bernardino Democrat, stated. She authored the potentially life-changing bill. Referring to inmates-turned-firefighters, she said, "These individuals have received valuable training and placed themselves in danger to defend the life and property of Californians. Those individuals that successfully complete their service in the fire camps should be granted special consideration relating to their underlying criminal conviction."



 

 

Newsom signed the bill into law against a background of grey ash and charred trees near Lake Oroville, one of the most devastating sites of destruction as a result of the wildfires. Already, at least 20 people have lost their lives to the calamity. Like the state's firefighters, these inmate firefighters are on the frontlines risking their lives to serve and protect Californians. In recent years, there have been concerns about having enough inmates to fulfill the inmate firefighter program. Changes in state law have reduced the number of lower-level offenders in state prisons. Additionally, court rulings have brought an end to some of the incentives for prisoners to risk their lives fighting fires when they could earn similar early release credits by performing less dangerous duties.



 

 

The shortage was extremely intense this year as thousands of prisoners were released early due to the ongoing public health crisis. To slow the spread of the virus in jails, the occupancy was brought down by at least 30 percent from last year. Tweeting about the reform, Governor Newsom stated, "California’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." While the district attorneys association had argued against the bill, stating that expunging criminal records should be limited to only lower-level offenders, many criminal justice reform advocates have praised the legislation.



 

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