Occupational Licensing

California's Inmate Firefighters May Soon Be Allowed To Continue Their Careers After Release

Harsh occupational license rules locked them out, except when they were locked up. A new bill just passed to change the rules.


A summer heat wave led to another round of wildfires in California which drew attention to the state's dependence on prison inmates as firefighters and the terrible fact that licensing regulations stop these men and women from continuing this work after they're freed.

But that may change with A.B. 2147, which lawmakers just passed on August 30 and now awaits Gov. Gavin Newsom's signature. The bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes (D–San Bernardino), creates a process for former inmates to get their records expunged when they're released so that they can qualify for a state license to fight fires professionally.

Currently, California's oppressive licensing laws prevent former inmates from being able to earn the proper emergency technician license because they have criminal records. But every summer, when the wildfires grow out of control, the state depends on current inmates (who earn $1 per hour) to assist firefighting crews. Over the past couple of years, there's been more and more media attention paid to the outrage that these people cannot pursue firefighting as a career after they're released.

In June, Reyes introduced A.B. 2147 to fix this problem. Her bill establishes a process of relief for inmates who have participated in one of these "hand crews" successfully (meaning they didn't get booted out of the program for misconduct). Inmates convicted of certain crimes (like murder, kidnapping, rape, sex offenses, and, of course, arson) are not eligible.

"If we are willing to allow an incarcerated person to volunteer and help fight fires—protecting lives and property while putting their lives at risk; then we should be willing to allow those same individuals an opportunity to receive an expungement which can be granted after judicial review," she wrote in June after introducing the bill.

The bill doesn't stop with just letting former convicts legally fight fires. There are more than 40 occupations in California where people with criminal records are shut out of occupational licenses. A.B. 2147 will allow these former prisoners to work on getting licenses in these other careers, though they'll still be blocked from working as teachers, police officers, or elected officials.

Firefighters unions had been resisting this push to let inmates become professionals after they're released, but according to Erika D. Smith, a columnist at the Los Angeles Times, Reyes managed to satisfy them with this bill. It passed unanimously through the state's Senate and 51-12 in the Assembly.

Now it's up to Newsom to decide whether to sign the bill. He absolutely should, of course, allow these people to return to the workforce after their release.