California firefighters will have the chance to become professional firefighters upon completion of their sentences after Governor Gavin Newsom signed the law on Friday.
The new law will allow state and county inmates who are training to be firefighters to clear criminal records, which are often a barrier to firefighting or other occupations.
The move "will give these prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession they trained," Newsom said as he signed the bill against a backdrop of gray ash and charred trees near Lake Oroville, where is one of the most is devastating from the many fires that have charred the state in recent weeks.
About 500 inmates firefighters were at the front of this fire, authorities said.
California has struggled to deploy enough firefighters for inmates in recent years due to changes in state law that have reduced the number of junior offenders in state prisons. Court rulings also ended some of the incentives for inmates to risk their lives fighting fires if they could earn similar early release credits with less dangerous duties.
The shortage grew this year as thousands more inmates were released early to slow the spread of the coronavirus through prisons, reducing the number of inmates firefighters by about 30% year over year.
The new law can create a new incentive by allowing former firefighters of inmates to ask a judge to withdraw their guilty plea after their release. The judge could choose to reject the allegations.
The measure excludes those convicted of certain violent crimes and sexual offenses, and the ex-offender would have to disclose the conviction if he wanted to apply to be a teacher.
The expulsion would give ex-firefighters the opportunity to apply for more than 200 professions that require a state license. This is an opportunity most people with a criminal record have missed, according to Eloise Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino who drafted the bill.
"These people received valuable training and are at risk of defending the lives and property of Californians," she said in a legal analysis. "Individuals who have successfully completed their service in the fire camps should receive special consideration with regard to their underlying criminal conviction."
The passage of the bill was welcomed by criminal justice reform groups, and Newsom said it was supported by various unions, although the union, which represents professional firefighters, said it did not support the measure.
The district attorney's office opposed the bill, stating that deletion of criminal records should be limited to subordinate offenders, few of whom remain in state prisons. The incentive should be limited to those sent to county prisons rather than state prisons.