California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill allowing prisoners who fight fires while incarcerated to have their records expunged after serving time so they have an easier path to becoming regular firefighters, reports Politico. The law lets prisoners who served in a state firefighting camp or on a county fire crew ask a court to dismiss their convictions so they can qualify as EMTs, a necessary step to becoming a firefighter. It gives “prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they’ve been trained,” Newsom said, signing the bill where the North Complex Fire has burned 250,000 acres and 10 people have died. The bill excludes those convicted of crimes including murder, kidnapping, rape, arson or any felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.
The state released thousands of inmates early this year to clear cramped prisons and reduce COVID-19 exposure risks — particularly lower-risk offenders who might normally serve in fire camps. Hundreds of rare lightning strikes in August put severe demands on California’s firefighting force, and the state acknowledged that inmate crews were thinner this year due to the releases. About 3,100 inmates helped fight fires last year. While California has long relied on inmates to fight fires, social justice efforts were full steam this summer after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, and advocates seized on California’s use of prisoners as a serious problem. Law enforcement members and prosecutors opposed the bill, arguing that those who serve time in prisons have been deemed a higher risk and would pose a danger to the public.