There has been a lot of criticism when it comes to California’s inmate firefighter program. These convicts who are putting their lives on the line as public service all for only $1 an hour plus $2 to $5 a day, which many argue makes the program akin to slave labor. But a new law signed into effect by Governor Gavin Newsom, AB 2147, is making this service closer to an intense career-training program as now inmates who serve on fire crews while in prison can more easily become professional firefighters or paramedics when they are released from prison.
What the New Inmate Firefighter Law Does
California state bars those with felon records from gaining an emergency medical technician (EMT) license, a common requirement for those seeking employment as a firefighter and a mandatory requirement for those hoping to become a paramedic. The new law allows for inmates who serve on fire crews in California to obtain a criminal expungement of their crimes, so they can apply for an EMT license after they have served their full prison time.
What AB 2147 Won’t Do
It’s worth mentioning that this new law won’t open the door to anyone with a felony conviction on their record. Only those who have served on prison firefighting crews are eligible for to have their record expunged. That automatically excludes those convicted of:
- sex crimes
- gang crimes
Anyone who has previously attempted to escape or is not considered “physically fit” enough for the job is also not permitted to fight fires while incarcerated. In fact, to serve on a firefighting crew, inmates must have a proven record of good behavior in prison (meaning they have remained non-violent and follow prison rules), have participated in rehabilitation programming and have five years or less remaining on their sentence. Even if they meet all of these requirements, they must undergo individualized screening to be approved to be sent to the conservation camp program.
Once they make it to one of the camps, inmates must then go through the same Cal Fire training program as entry-level firefighters before they are actually allowed to go into the actual community in order to fight wildfires.
In other words, anyone who has not actually met all of these requirements will not actually be able to qualify to have their records expunged under AB 2147 -and they will continue to be ineligible to take up a firefighting career in California.
Covid-19 and Inmate Firefighters
While public knowledge of the use of incarcerated people as firefighters has only recently become widespread, the original California inmate firefighters were actually brought into service all the way back in WWII. There are 43 inmate conservation camps throughout 27 counties in our state. But between early release to avoid the spread of coronavirus and widespread infection of Covid-19 in state prison, the number of inmate firefighters has dropped 30% from last year, from 1,895 to 1,354. This means those serving on the crews are being stretched particularly thin in this year’s particularly terrible fire season.
Interestingly, recent efforts to reduce the state’s prison population has resulted in many people serving shorter sentences for lesser felonies in jail. Inmates serving their prison time in a local jail are eligible for fire camp but they must have sufficient time on their sentence to be eligible. This is something to consider when discussing possible sentencing with your attorney.
If you have any questions about the possibility of securing an expungement related to serving on an inmate firefighting crew in San Diego County, please contact Peter M. Liss at (760) 643-4050.
Image by TheHilaryClark