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As Prisoners, They Can Help Fight California's Huge Wildfires. As Free People, They're Banned From Being Firefighters

California's licensing laws make it almost impossible for individuals with criminal records to become professional firefighters.

FRED GREAVES/REUTERS/NewscomFRED GREAVES/REUTERS/NewscomAs the largest wildfire in California's history continues to burn out of control, thousands of inmates from the California Department of Corrections are helping professional firefighters battle the flames.

Those inmates are literally risking their lives to protect people, homes, and businesses as part of the state's volunteer inmate firefighter program—and they are paid less than $2 per day for their work, even as they toil alongside professionals who earn an average of $74,000 annually (and that's not counting overtime).

An even crueler twist? Once they are released from prison, those same men and women will likely be denied the opportunity to put their skills to use, as California's licensing laws prohibit individuals with criminal records from becoming firefighters.

"The persistent, horrific wildfires year after year make this human rights issue even more pressing for the men and women fighting these fires every day who cannot do so once released," says Katherine Katcher, founder and executive director of Root and Rebound, a California-based nonprofit that helps the formerly incarcerated find jobs after getting out of prison. Katcher tells Reason that the state's discriminatory licensing rules "shut people out of living wage careers that they are trained and qualified for solely because of old, expunged, and irrelevant convictions."

California's inmate firefighter program is open to prisoners who are not convicted of arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping or gang-related offenses, as long as they do not have a history of escape attempts and are not facing a life sentence. They receive two weeks of firefighting training and must pass a physical exam. The department says more than 2,000 volunteer inmate firefighters, including 58 youth offenders, have been deployed to battle the Mendocino Complex Fire, which has burned more than 300,000 acres near Redding and is now considered the largest fire in state history.

Inmates are used to fight smaller fires too. According to The New York Times, about half the firefighting personnel at any California wildfire will be part of the inmate program. Using them—and paying them so little compared to professional firefighters—allows the state to save between $80 million and $100 million every year.

But the real injustice is what happens once those inmates have finished serving their time.

In California, firefighters are required to be licensed as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), which requires taking classes and passing a few state-administered exams. No problem there, but state law allows licensing boards to block anyone with a criminal record from getting an EMT license, says Katcher.

"It's sadistic on so many levels," Shoshana Weissmann, digital media specialist for the free-market R Street Institute, tells Reason. Weissman recently authored an op-ed calling attention to the various absurd ways that California limits the formerly incarcerated from finding work upon release.

Indeed, such prohibitions cause problems on many levels. Being able to use in-demand skills makes the adjustment to post-prison life more difficult for the formerly incarcerated, who often lack solid job prospects and have a hard time finding work. It unnecessarily reduces the number of qualified and trained firefighters in a state where wildfires are a serious concern. And it means the time and money spent training inmates to battle wildfires is at least partially wasted.

It might also increase crime in the long run. With fewer options for legal work, the formerly incarcerated are more likely to resume a life of crime, according to a 2017 study by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University. After reviewing licensing rules and recidivism rates for a 10-year period beginning in 1997, the study found that formerly incarcerated residents are more likely to commit a new crime within three years of being released from prison if they live in a state where they're prohibited from getting a license solely for having a criminal record.

"Those with good jobs and good employment prospects in the legitimate labor market tend to commit less crime," writes U.C. Berkeley public policy professor Steven Raphael in The New Scarlet Letter: Negotiating the U.S. Labor Market with a Criminal Record. "Those with poor employment prospects tend to commit more."

According to the American Bar Assoaciation, there are more than 12,000 different restrictions in state licensing laws that limit the career choices for the roughly 70 million Americans with a criminal record. Many of those restrictions are what the National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit that advocates for loosening access to jobs, calls "blanket bans" that leave no room for an applicant to argue his or her case—by pointing out, for example, that they have been trained to fight wildfires.

Instead of blanket bans, NELP suggests that states should write licensing laws that include prohibitions for specific criminal offenses—exactly how the California Department of Corrections operates their inmate firefighter program, for example. California's licensing laws "need improvement" the nonprofit concluded in a 2016 report assessing each state's licensing laws based on whether they create barriers for the formerly incarcerated.

"Licensing boards and certifying agencies claim these practices are for public safety, when the real threat is chronic unemployment and poverty," says Katcher.

Lawmakers in California could start making those improvements by recognizing that inmate firefighters who are risking their lives to fight the state's biggest wildfire deserve a chance to do the exact same thing once they are no longer locked up. Root and Rebound pushed state lawmakers to pass a bill ending the prohibition on granting EMT licenses to anyone with a criminal record, but the bill has not yet passed.

"Considering that finding a job after prison reduces the likelihood non-violent former offenders will reoffend," says Weissmann, "this is all just terrible policy."

Photo Credit: FRED GREAVES/REUTERS/Newscom

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  • ||

    California's licensing laws make it almost impossible for individuals with criminal records to become professional firefighters.

    Is the assumption here that professional firefighters or people in general are owed jobs? Asking for a libertarian friend.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    What non-sequitor are you invoking here? You must be some kind of statist to throw random things around like that. Fuck off, slaver.

  • Robert||

    In this context, fire off, flamer.

  • Sonny Bono's Ghost||

    Where do you get "owed jobs" from barred from getting? Are you one of tose idiots that doenst understand the difference between opportunity and outcome, cause there do seem to be a lot of you around?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Gee! California has a program that makes absolutely NO sense because of other California regulations? Color mer shocked!

    Not.

  • DRM||

    Actually, it doesn't make particular sense to require firefighters to be EMTs. There are plenty of places that do just fine keeping EMTs and firefighters separate, like Troy, Michigan.

  • sarcasmic||

    It makes sense if you're a part of a union that wants to justify paying full time firefighters twice the median wage to sit around waiting for something to happen.

  • ||

    It also makes sense if you're a smaller municipality that would prefer to pay one paycheck to sit around waiting for something to happen rather than two. It also 'doubles' the frequency of 'somethings' being waited upon.

  • DRM||

    Well, you see, that's just it. Troy doesn't pay its firefighters to sit around waiting for something to happen; it calls in unpaid volunteers to fight fires. (Okay, there's a core of ten full-time professionals on staff for the city of 80,000, and somebody who volunteers for 30 years is eligible for an $18,000 pension.) And then hires a private contractor for EMT services at $500k/year.

  • ||

    While I'm not intimately familiar with the EMT certification process in Troy, MI. I'm fairly certain they still do background checks and have some hit-or-miss process of rejecting felons. Certainly better than CA, but not much.

    Considering the only time 'volunteer' was mentioned in the story was in reference to their positions as inmates, I get/got the distinct impression that these felons weren't pushing for the no-pay/$18K pension firefighter positions. I could be wrong.

  • Agammamon||

    It makes sense *if you're that smaller municipality*. It doesn't make sense for the state to mandate it statewide.

  • Hunthjof||

    It also makes sense that in some locations Fire Departments arrive on scene before the ambulance does.

  • Agammamon||

    Then the state should mandate that all people in the state are licensed as EMTs - some onlookers arrive on scene before the fire department does.

  • Flinch||

    You can't be a good samaritan in California - legally, its too dangerous as the state supreme court gutted it in 2008. Anyone remember Bill Cosby's son getting killed? And, remember the firefighers that got shot during the LA riots? Rendering emergency medical care without being a doctor, EMT or police opens pandoras box.
    Professional firefightes have city coffers [and sometimes union help] to ward off vampires with a valise, whereas the individual citizen can get financially raped [even if they "win"]. Thank the bar association for endangering lives by pimping a lawsuit against non-qualified rescuers during a real emergency, and the legislature for their purposely misguided "fix". Saving a life may result in damages owed [as case law continues to crumble statute]. But you can read if you like: CA Health and Safety Code 1799.102. It may or may not mean anything at all with courts ready and willing to rewrite law on demand, but it does appear that samaritan protections are only extended to "medical, law enforcement and emergency personnel". In other words, it just guards professionals off the clock/out of uniform.

  • Sonny Bono's Ghost||

    Now they can add corrections-officer to the mix and go on strike for a raise!

  • Azathoth!!||

    DING! DING! DING! DING! DING!

    We have a winnah!

    Unions getting jacked pay is more important than saving lives!

  • Longtorso, Johnny||

    Firefighters enter peoples' homes - I can see having restrictions on that but letting them fight these particular fires.

  • Agammamon||

    Only if your house is on fire. In which case there are more important things to worry about than whether one of the dudes in jail for drug possession might swipe some of your DVD collection or one of your wife's porcelain cats.

  • buybuydandavis||

    More important to you.

    Maybe not more important to them.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    So you really want Anthony Weiner responding to 911 calls?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    He's ready for roasting, wouldn't you say?

  • Dillinger||

    CPR training required to hose trees?

  • Flinch||

    Absolutely - the number one hazard of firefighting is smoke inhalation, and somebody without resuscitation skills is not just dead weight, but endangers the other members of their team. Training for that is pretty quick.

  • spork||

    I have stripped any questions about criminal history from my application, interview and hiring process. If it comes up, I ask the candidate, "and did that little judge sentence you to a lifetime of shitty, unfulfilling labor?" My view is that, once they have completed their sentences, ex-cons are square with society and should be fully reinstated to full citizenship (including the right to vote and possess firearms), and that they should be judged on merit just like anyone else. Some of my finest workers and a supervisor have spent time behind bars. With such aggressive policing of so many laws, it is largely just a statistical thing whether you've been locked up.
    .
    I do ask if they have ever been fired and why, I call former supervisors and references to verify and I question gaps in employment history. I also Google their names, I don't want to accidentally hire somebody whose crime is related to my business or is particularly egregious, but why would I give the criminal justice system veto power over hiring in my business? Why make prospective co-workers feel ostracized and deficient before they are even hired? I'd rather hire an enthusiastic reformed addict with a felony possession rap than a lazy bum who has kept his nose clean.
    .
    Nice to see the government of California employing convicts like slaves. $2 a day to risk your life fight wildfires?

  • buybuydandavis||

    "My view is that, once they have completed their sentences, ex-cons are square with society"

    That can be your view. It's self harming, but that's up to you.

    Until they've made whole those they harmed, nothing is "square". In most all cases, it will never be made square.

    Being let out of confinement does not mean that the consequences of their actions, for them and their victims, cease to exist.

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    Barring released convicts from skilled positions doesn't serve to make whole those they've harmed either.

  • buybuydandavis||

    But in certain cases, it may be the prudent action.

  • Ben of Houston||

    I will agree, in certain cases, it's prudent. I would not want someone convicted of money laundering to get a CPA license.

    However, the most common jail conviction is drug possession. With that, you can't even get a sewage license in Texas. They literally aren't allowed to dig ditches, the most basic job that no one else wants.

    A blanket ban makes no sense and harms without helping.

  • Qsl||

    Yeah, not going anywhere.

    It's not just licensing from the state, but the other holders of those licenses as well as professional groups, and even lawsuits against places that employ felons all converging to keep most occupations closed communities. Even with more generous licensing options, most employers are reticent to hire felons unless they are extremely desperate.

    And there is the whole making it illegal to inquire about past criminal history that butts up against several libertarian sacred cows, so there really isn't a good answer.

    I always suggest felons run for public office. No clear criminal history requirements for those jobs.

  • Ben of Houston||

    They aren't being forced, so they are technically volunteer firefighters. I do find it morally questionable, but if I was in jail, I'd rather fight fires than sit in a cell. At least it's interesting.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    With fewer options for legal work, the formerly incarcerated are more likely to resume a life of crime

    Predictable consequences are never unintended.

  • LarryA||

    Reoffend, then they go back to prison and can be firefighters. The state can use their firefighter training at $2/day instead of $74,000/year. Win/win.

    [/sarc]

  • Longtobefree||

    So much for "they paid there dues to society".
    But then again, California.
    How about we make it a requirement to get a license to practice law that you have done at least 5 years prison time?
    That way we know the lawyers are familiar with the system.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Going to prison is not "paying your dues to society", it is being confined for the protection of others.

    Crimes generally are not undone for the victims. That debt is never paid.

  • Rossami||

    California's licensing laws do not "need improvement", they need abolition. So do all the rest.

    Occupational licensing has created far more problems than it solves. Most importantly, it has entirely failed at it's primary justification. People keep saying that without licensing, any quack can practice medicine. Having reviewed the files of rather a lot of doctors, many quacks do practice medicine. And their governing boards are either unable or unwilling to discipline them. Ditto, by the way, for legal bar associations.

    I will concede that I have not seen as many egregious licensing abuses among engineers - but they already face a pretty stiff pressure to make sure that they are designing bridges that will stay up.

  • Echospinner||

    In what capacity have you reviewed the "files of a rather a lot of doctors" ? You are claiming yourself as knowledgeable in medical science and practice.

    Any quack can certainly call themselves practitioners of something. Homeopathy is legal it is placebo but you can sell it. Placebos work for some people and it is well known and documented. In real science the effect is controlled for.

    You do not understand what a state medical board does or should do.

    I have no idea about engineering a bridge. You are expert in that as well. I decline to comment about that further.

  • Uncle Jay||

    On the other hand, they can always get a job making license plates.

  • HillBillySophist||

    This article is at the very least disingenuous if not downright false. I am a former firefighter in the State of California and I am also a convicted felon. I was also an EMT-B (although I have allowed that certification to lapse).

    Not once was I prevented from getting a job as a result of my conviction. In fact, I was drawn to the profession because of my criminal record and because many agencies are willing to look the other way regarding peoples criminal past. I have worked alongside men and women who have been convicted of assault, rape, drug crimes and various other convictions.

    Keep in mind that CALFire is not the only firefighting agency in the State. Federal, County, and even private entities are all engaged in the profession and each has their own unique set of requirements for their employees.

    There are plenty of good arguments to be made about the regulatory framework of the State of California, which makes this sort of fear-mongering completely unnecessary.

  • Echospinner||

    Post of the day. Bravo.

  • Ben of Houston||

    Agreed. Can this be put up as a response? I would like the editor's comments on this.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "As Prisoners, They Can Help Fight California's Huge Wildfires. As Free People, They're Banned From Being Firefighters"

    Makes perfect sense. There is a legitimate reason to worry about putting felons in positions where they interact with the public in emergency situations, and have access to their homes.

    Don't give people power over the public who have already been *convicted* of abusing lesser power.

    ""It's sadistic on so many levels," Shoshana Weissmann, "
    = "I don't have any argument, so I convict you of WRONGFEELZ"

    Reason is such a joke.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "There is a legitimate reason to worry about putting felons in positions where they interact with the public in emergency situations, and have access to their homes."

    Oh, so then why are they allowed to fight fires while they are prisoners? Practice reasoning and logic much?

  • buybuydandavis||

    Because I'm not worried about them assaulting or robbing trees while under supervision
    Duh

    Practice reality much?

  • SQRLSY One||

    And out among the trees, where there are fires, there are no houses? Last time I checked, buttloads of houses get torched when the trees catch fire...

  • Flinch||

    Surely there has to be room for firefighters with just basic cpr/first aid. Full EMT? That's costing the public alot extra. Yeah it's good to know all that, but how about giving some room to get to that certification in the first place? Maybe cap non-EMT workforce at 20% and they will be in the right place to study and learn in an accellerated fashion. It takes a fair amount of study, as they have to be able to talk shop with doctors when bringing in somebody from an emergency. I don't think the legislature knows how much trouble they are uncorking in throwing the doors open. Some people may not want the certification or have the aptitude, and that's ok - driving trucks or manning firebreaks is honest work that needs to be done.

  • Galane||

    California could also not require all firefighters to be EMTs. Laws and regulations that require 100% of X to also be Y are crazy, especially then the need for Y is far less than for X.

    New York City requiring 100% of taxi cabs to be wheelchair accessible when the amount of people who need a taxi with wheelchair access is a small fraction of the total of people who take cab rides - that increases the cost to cab companies and reduces the passenger capacity of all the vehicles.

    Before that rule was enacted (along with the extremely shady deal that awarded Nissan the contract to provide all NYC taxis when they didn't even have a vehicle built) there were very few wheelchair accessible taxis in NYC. The Democrat 'fix' for such problems is always to go way overboard and dictatorial.

  • Ben of Houston||

    In any fire that requires a firefighter, there is a strong chance that medical treatment, or at least evaluation, will be necessary. It's either an occupied building on fire (with potential direct human victims) or a wildfire, which would have gotten quite large by the time anyone comes in, with who knows how much smoke exposure to who knows how many people. Since the firefighters are employees of the government, they have a lot more legitimate concern over qualifications of the personnel.

    I agree that most of the time this sort of thing is nonsense, but in this case, it makes sense.

  • jagjr||

    Galane has it right - this is an excessive requirement. I spent over 2 decades in the US Navy -- every Sailor has damage control responsibilities and is trained for them when assigned to a ship (makes sense - it is where you live, so everyone should want to be part of, you know, keeping it afloat). we were extensively trained in first aid and to some extent beyond that, but not to the level of an EMT. if that level of qual were needed for firefighting, why wouldn't the Navy require it for all personnel?? I have a relative who is a firefighter & he's told me that most of the folks that qualify EMT in his department take a couple of additional classes and can complete a nursing degree. that's way more medical education than is required for emergency response situations. robust first aid training is needed, but nothing as elaborate as EMT training.

  • jagjr||

    "Being able to use in-demand skills makes the adjustment to post-prison life more difficult for the formerly incarcerated, who often lack solid job prospects and have a hard time finding work."

    think you mean "unable".

  • Djrfill||

    It is fairly obvious the author knows very little about this subject. While California is burdened with insane licensing laws, this is a poor vehicle for pointing that out. Inmate firefighters do one specific job. They cut fireline on wildland fires(while under supervision). Professional municipal firefighters are engaged in many other activity's on a regular basis. The most common are structural fires and emergency medical services. These both put them in peoples homes while they are not present, or are in a vulnerable state. This makes having a background check an important part of their hiring process.

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