Reyes Legislation to Provide Second Chances to Inmate Fire Crews

Monday, February 10, 2020

Sacramento – Assemblymember Reyes (D-San Bernardino) today introduced AB 2147, which would provide an expedited expungement process for inmates that have successfully participated as inmate hand crews actively assisting with fire suppression activities.

Under existing law, once released from custody a former inmate must finish the terms of their parole before applying for expungement of their criminal record.  Even once those records are expunged, the person must disclose their criminal history on applications for state licenses. With nearly 200 occupations that require licensing from one of 42 California government departments and agencies these former inmates are almost entirely denied access to these jobs, as an estimated 2.5 million California workers (approximately 17% of the state’s workforce) need a professional license to work.  Under, AB 2147 a person that served as an inmate fire-fighting crewmember would be eligible to apply for expungement upon release from custody, and if the expungement is approved could seek various career pathways including those that require a state license.

“For those formerly incarcerated that have served the state assisting with battling some of the worst fires in our state’s history we must do more to give them real pathways to employment.”  Assemblymember Reyes continued, “A criminal conviction should not be a life sentence that prevents someone from ever being able to start a career and turn their life around and to make their community and this state a better place. This particular group of people have made mistakes, but during their incarceration have demonstrated their commitment to rehabilitation through their participation in the inmate fire crew program which is not an easy task, given the training and risk assessment standards that are required for entry into the program.”

According to Julia Root, Senior Workforce Policy Associate, Center for Employment Opportunities, "Every day we see the transformative effect that access to quality jobs has on individuals looking to rebuild their lives after exiting incarceration. AB 2147 is a long overdue step in removing an unjust barrier to employment. Further it recognizes, that incarcerated firefighters are learning skills that provide value to the community after their release."  

"Californians for Safety and Justice stand behind common sense policies that reduce the reliance on prison spending and removes barriers from individuals returning home after a period of incarceration," said Jay Jordan, Executive Director for Californians for Safety and Justice. "We applaud Assemblymember Reyes for introducing AB 2147, a bill that would pave the way for individuals who volunteered to help keep Californians safe from wildfires while incarcerated to now have the opportunity to continue that work on the outside."

“Successful participation” in an inmate hand crew would be determined by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) for those inmates in state prison, and for those in county jails, the local county authority would make the determination.

Roughly 2500 inmates from the Conservation Camp program volunteer and train to serve on fire crews to battle fires across the state.  In 2017, 650 inmate hand crews assisted in suppressing the Pocket, Tubbs, and Atlas Fires.  In 2018, close to 800 inmates assisted with the Camp Fire and in 2019 over 400-inmate hand crews assisted with battling the Kincade Fire.

The California Conservation Camp Program was initiated by CDCR to provide able-bodied inmates the opportunity to work on meaningful projects throughout the state. Those projects can include clearing firebreaks, restoring historical structures, maintaining parks, sand bagging and flood protection, reforestation and clearing fallen trees and debris.

There are 43 conservation camps for adult offenders and one camp for juvenile offenders. The conservation camps make up approximately 219 fire-fighting crews and are jointly managed by CDCR and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.

All inmates must earn the right to work in a conservation camp by their non-violent behavior and conformance to rules while they are incarcerated. Only minimum-custody inmates are eligible to volunteer for assignment in conservation camps.

In an average year, the Conservation Camp Program provides approximately three million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and seven million person-hours in community service projects, saving California taxpayers approximately $100 million annually.

Several counties across the state, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino operate inmate fire training academies for county jail inmates utilizing several hundred jail inmates.

Despite their low-level risk status, dedication and willingness to put themselves in harm’s way, many who participated in these programs struggle to find permanent and stable employment once released. This is in part due to significant barriers in place for individuals with a prior conviction to seek employment or even the education necessary to start a career.

The intent of this bill is to provide an expedited expungement process in which an inmate who has participated in the California Conservation Camp Program as an inmate firefighter can begin their expungement process as soon as they have served their time. This individual may also be eligible for early termination of parole, if the court deems that the defendant has not violated any terms or conditions of probation or parole prior to, and during the petition for relief.

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Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes represents Assembly District 47, which includes the cities of Fontana, Rialto, Colton, Grand Terrace, San Bernardino and the unincorporated areas of Muscoy and Bloomington.