As California Fires Rage, New Bill Finally Allows Former Inmates to Become Firefighters

Former prisoners in California who have been trained at fire camps could now have their criminal records expunged and apply to become firefighters under a new bill approved by lawmakers on Monday.

Authored by California State Assembly member Eloise Reyes, the bill (AB-2147) stated: "After receiving valuable training and placing themselves in danger assisting firefighters to defend the life and property of Californians, incarcerated individual hand crew members face difficulty and obstacles in achieving employment due to their past criminal record."

Current law dictates a court can allow a defendant to "withdraw their plea of guilty or plea of nolo contendere and enter a plea of not guilty, after the lapse of one or two years following the defendant's completion of the sentence," the bill noted.

The new legislation would expedite the process and "allow a defendant who successfully participated in the California Conservation Camp program or a county incarcerated individual hand crew as an incarcerated individual hand crew member, and has been released from custody, to petition to withdraw their plea of guilty or plea of nolo contendere and enter a plea of not guilty," the bill stated.

The California Conservation Camp program helps government agencies respond to emergencies such as fires and other disasters.

"The bill would make persons convicted of specified violent felonies and sex offenses ineligible for relief," the legislation noted.

For former inmates who qualify for the relief, the bill proposes the court be authorized to "dismiss the accusations or information against the defendant" and "release the defendant from all penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense, except as provided."

The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) operates 44 conservation camps, working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which has been facing a massive staff shortage amid the ongoing wildfires across the state.

Cal Fire is responsible for fighting fires in over 96 million acres of California's nearly 101.7 million total acres of land.

Around 3,700 inmates are reported to be working at conservation camps under the California Conservation Camp program. Around 2,600 of these inmates are "fire line-qualified," the latest bill confirmed.

Reyes noted in a post on her official Twitter account: "If we really want to bring about change and lower our recidivism rates, we have to ensure that those that have served their sentences have an opportunity for meaningful employment. Those that have served on the fire lines deserve a second chance."

The legislation comes as more than 15,600 firefighters battle 19 major fires across the state. Since August 15, over 900 wildfires have burned more than 1.48 million acres of California. Eight people have died, including a firefighter who died while battling the August Complex fire in the Mendocino National Forest, according to Cal Fire's latest report Tuesday.

Statewide fire map for Tuesday, September 1. Hard work continues to pay off as containment increases on major fires throughout California.

— Cal OES (@Cal_OES) September 1, 2020

Firefighting efforts have been hampered by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, which also led to the recent early release of thousands of inmates in a bid to mitigate the spread of infection among the prison population.

Since July 1, the CDCR released 5,727 inmates, which reportedly included inmates from the Conservation Camp program who could potentially work as inmate crew members for Cal Fire.

Despite the urgency of the ongoing fires, the inmates were reported to be unable to assist in the state's firefighting efforts due to the hiring period for fire crew being closed for the season, Tim Edwards, the president of Cal Fire Local 2881, Cal Fire's firefighters union, told Newsweek last week.

"We only have inmate crews as part of the program with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR). If a released inmate wants to apply, they must go through all the steps and meet all minimum requirements needed.

"Cal Fire's inmate crews, who operate line construction around fires to contain them, were reported to have nearly halved from 99 to 45 crews (each inmate crew consists of 15 to 17 people), while nearly 150 firefighters from Cal Fire are currently in quarantine due to coronavirus infection or exposure," Edwards told Newsweek last month.

Since 2017, nearly 2,000 inmates have helped suppress several fires across the state, including the Kincade Fire in 2019, the Camp Fire in 2018, as well as the Pocket, Tubbs and Atlas fires in 2017. From early 2017 to date, three inmates died while helping to contain a fire, according to the bill.

Inmate crew Kincade Fire California 2019
Inmate crew members making their way to firefighting operations for the Kincade Fire in California on October 26, 2019. Philip Pacheco/AFP via Getty Images)