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California Governor Signs Bill That Will Allow Ex-Inmates To Become Firefighters

Although California tends to have fire seasons each year, 2020 has seen one of the most destructive in recent memory. It started earlier than usual, has also affected Oregon and Washington state, and — according to The L.A. Times — has already resulted in the scorching of over 3 million acres of land, the destruction of 4,200 buildings, and the deaths of at least 25 people.

As in past years, the state of California has supplemented fire crews with teams of prison inmates. But thanks to the passage of a new bill, their firefighting careers won't necessarily need to end with their release.

Since the 1900s, California has used crews of prison inmates for firefighting purposes.

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According to The San Francisco Chronicle, their duties often involve cutting fire lines and dealing with blazes on rough terrain where fire engines and bulldozers can't reach.

Although inmates volunteer for the program and receive better food and open-air living conditions for doing so, critics have characterized it as exploitative due to the risks involved and the fact that the inmates make $2.90 to $5.12 per day for their work. They earn an additional dollar per hour spent in an active emergency.

For reference, inmates working through other prison programs tend to make approximately eight cents an hour.

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And since this fire season has overlapped with the COVID-19 pandemic, their working conditions are harder than ever.

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As The San Francisco Chronicle reported, the state has released thousands of minimum-security offenders early as a means of curtailing the spread of the coronavirus.

As a result, the pool of inmates available for fire crews has decreased 30% since last year when 1,895 inmates were on the front lines during the fire season. That number is now down to 1,354, which means that the remaining inmates' shifts have extended by hours beyond the usual 24-hour periods.

In some cases, inmates are working up to 48 hours at a time.

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While that sounds like members of these fire crews will have some solid firefighting experience once they're released, California state law has long prevented them from becoming professional firefighters.

According to NPR, this is because most municipal fire departments require EMT certifications that former inmates are prohibited from earning.

While it's technically possible for an inmate with firefighting experience to join a fire crew that doesn't require an EMT certificate, they're likely to get passed over for candidates who do have them.

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As you saw above, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill that passed through the state's legislature seeking to address this situation.

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As NPR reported, Assembly Bill 2147 allows inmates who trained in the state's prison firefighting programs to petition courts to expunge their criminal records after their sentence has served.

This would then make them eligible to pursue EMT certification and potentially become professional firefighters.

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Prosecutors and police organizations have opposed the bill, claiming that the former inmates who could benefit from it are dangerous to the public.

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However, the issue with this argument as reported by NPR is that those who were incarcerated for violent felonies such as murder, sexual offenses, and kidnapping were never eligible for California's prison firefighting programs.

As such, they remain in no position to have their convictions dismissed through AB 2147.

h/t: The San Francisco Chronicle, NPR

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