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

Michael James, USA TODAY

California's governor passed a bill Friday that will give prisoners battling the state's massive wildfires a chance to avoid a different battle after their release: That of finding a job.

Under California bill AB2147, Gov. Gavin Newsom is allowing certain prisoners who are on the front lines of wildfire containment to have their records expunged after serving their sentences. The goal is to make it easier for them to have a firefighting career after release.

Criminal records are often a bar to employment. Newsom said he wants to give the prisoners a shot at becoming firefighters and that removing their criminal history will make that more possible.

"California inmate firefighter program is decades-old and has long needed reform," Newsom said on Twitter Friday. "Inmates who have stood on the front lines, battling historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter."

Newsom signed the bill against a backdrop of grey ash and charred trees near Lake Oroville, site of one of the most devastating of the many fires that have charred the state in recent weeks. At least 20 people have died in the California wildfires, according to Cal Fire.

The bill excludes those convicted of certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, arson or any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.

California has been struggling in recent years to field enough inmate firefighters because of changes in state law that have reduced the number of lower-level offenders in state prisons. Court rulings also ended some of the incentives for inmates to risk their lives fighting fires when they could earn similar early release credits with less dangerous duties.

The shortage grew this year, as thousands more inmates were released early in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus through prisons, pushing the number of inmate firefighters down about 30% from last year.

The new law may create a new incentive, by allowing former inmate firefighters, after their release, to ask a judge to withdraw their plea of guilty. The judge could opt to then dismiss the accusations.

The expungement would give the former firefighters the ability to apply for any of more than 200 occupations that require a state license, an opportunity lost to most people with criminal records, according to Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino who authored the bill.

“These individuals have received valuable training and placed themselves in danger to defend the life and property of Californians,” she said in a legislative analysis. "Those individuals that successfully complete their service in the fire camps should be granted special consideration relating to their underlying criminal conviction.”

The district attorneys association had argued against the bill, saying that expungement of criminal records should be limited to lower-level offenders, few of whom remain in state prisons. It said the incentive should be limited to those who are sent to county jails and not state lockups.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Gavin Newsom signs bill giving prisoners shot at becoming firefighters