Amid catastrophic wildfires, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will finally expand economic opportunity for some of the state’s inmate firefighters.
For decades, California has trained thousands of prisoners to fight fires. Today, those working in a penal fire camp earn just $2-5 a day, plus an extra $1 per hour when on the fire line. But in a cruel irony, once they’re released from prison, many ex-offenders find themselves barred from working as firefighters.
Almost all of the state’s 900-plus fire departments require an emergency medical technician certification. And under state law, anyone who has been convicted of any felony is automatically barred from obtaining an EMT certification for 10 years after their release. Two or more felonies convictions trigger a lifetime ban.
As a result, ex-offenders can volunteer or work as a seasonal firefighter, (which doesn’t require EMT certification), but can’t turn firefighting into a stable, full-time career.
To make it easier for people who served in a penal fire camp to find jobs, the newly signed Assembly Bill 2147 will set up an expedited expungement process. Ex-offenders will no longer have to wait to finish their parole, probation, or supervised release sentences to file a “petition for relief” requesting expungement with the county court. With an expunged record, occupational licenses that were previously off-limits could now be obtained.
AB2147 is a modest step in the right direction. But relief is not guaranteed: Courts are free to refuse expungement. And the new expedited expungement process is only limited to those who worked in a penal fire camp, a small fraction of the state’s burgeoning prison population. (Each year, roughly 35,000 people leave prison in California.)
Most importantly, AB2147 doesn’t change the state’s draconian disqualifications that block people convicted of felonies from obtaining EMT certification. Over the summer, the Institute for Justice filed a lawsuit challenging this “irrational” ban, which will continue to proceed even after AB2147 takes effect next year.
Adding to the irrationality, EMTs were one of the very few occupations untouched by a significant overhaul of the state’s licensing laws for ex-offenders.
Thanks to a bipartisan reform enacted in 2018, California barred nearly all licensing boards from denying licenses based on criminal convictions, unless they were “substantially related” to the license sought.
Applicants also cannot be disqualified on the basis of arrests, dismissed charges, or convictions that happened more than seven years ago (aside from serious and sexual felonies). Thanks to those reforms, California earned a B- and ranked ninth in the nation for its overall protections for ex-offenders seeking licenses, according to a recent report I wrote, “Barred from Working.”
Yet many licensing requirements impose hefty burdens, which can deter ex-offenders from applying for those positions. On average, a license for lower- and middle-income occupations required Californians to complete 486 days of training and experience, pay $827 in fees, and pass two exams.
In fact, according to one study, California received the dubious distinction of being “most broadly and onerously licensed state in the nation.” All told, burdensome licensing laws cost the Golden State $22 billion and are responsible for 195,000 fewer jobs.
California’s blanket ban also highlights how occupational licensing thwarts upward mobility. Today, more than 22 percent of Californians now need a license or certification to work. By comparison, during the 1950s, just one in 20 American workers were licensed.
This growth in licensing, coupled with the fact that roughly one in three Americans has a criminal record of some sort, means that licensing boards have become major gatekeepers to ex-offenders seeking a fresh start.
Nick Sibilla is a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice and the author of “Barred from Working.”آموزش سئو