As 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."
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