SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California lawmakers passed a bill on Monday that would allow former inmates to pursue careers as firefighters after their incarcerations.
The move comes amid backlash that inmates, who often risk their lives fighting wildfires across the state as part of inmate fire crews, usually cannot get firefighter jobs after they are released from prison. More than 2,000 inmate firefighters battle fires across California each year.
"If we really want to bring about change and lower our recidivism rates, we have to ensure that those that have served their sentences have an opportunity for meaningful employment," Assemblywoman Eloise Gomez Reyes, who authored the bill, said Sunday in a tweet. "Those that have served on the fire lines deserve a second chance.”
The bill, known as AB 2147, gives nonviolent offenders who have spent time fighting fires the opportunity to have their records expunged so they can become firefighters.
Inmates have been used to fight fires since World War II, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Certain convictions make inmates ineligible for the program, and only those who have 5 years or less remaining on their sentences are eligible — but those who do qualify receive the same level of training as seasonal Cal Fire firefighters.
Critics have slammed the fact that the program saves California taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year, but inmates are only paid between $2 - $5 a day, and an additional $1 per hour while fighting fires.
The number of inmate firefighters on the front lines battling wildfires this year have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic — only 1,306 inmates are currently deployed out of a possible 3,400, according to the New York Times.
The bill now heads to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom to be signed.