Despite AB 2147, Things Are Not Looking Up For Inmate Firefighters After Release

In September 2020, California Governor, Gavin Newsom, signed a bill allowing inmate firefighters awaiting release to make petitions for criminal records expungement ahead of their free date.

The legislature passed AB 2147 to make these inmates, who received valuable training and risked their lives alongside professional firefighters, eligible to receive EMT certification. The certification is a necessary hiring requirement for persons seeking to join firefighting departments in the golden state.

Nearly six months later, things are not looking up for inmate firefighters under the new bill. Also, the purpose of AB 2147 is all but defeated as California faces a fire season with fewer available inmates.

The first indication was when a federal judge upheld a California licensing law that bans many former inmates from gaining full-time employment as professional firefighters, regardless of prior training or hands-on experience fighting fires while in prison.

In explaining the reason for the decision, the federal judge enunciated that upholding the ban was in the government’s legitimate interest to ensure public safety per The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016. The judge, however, conceded that the state ban has been the subject of public critique and that the former inmates who filed the petition have a valid injury.

What Is The Impact Of This Ban?

I will get to that in a second. First, consider that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recently announced that fire season is likely to start early.

Experts point to climate change for the state’s persistent drought, low humidity, and strong northeasterly winds as telltale signs of an early start to the fire season even though the state is yet to record triple-digit temperatures.

Likewise, the National Weather Service has issued a red flag warning for Northern California. Based on empirical evidence, and weather data analysis, the NWS projects that fires may start as soon as May 2021. 

On how the ban affects California’s emergency preparedness to reign in the fires? The Fire Department faces a staff shortage in the past five years, according to news reports. The staffing shortage is likely to worsen after the Department of Corrections releases some 76,000 inmates early later this summer.

The Department of Safety’s decision to release inmates early resulted from successful programs under The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016. 

The inmate release and court decision mean California Fire Department must hire and pay more expensive professional firefighters. California State Sheriffs’ Association president, David Robinson, told reporters that the comparatively higher cost is a necessary expense, considering the destructive effect of inaction. 

However, several Sheriffs dissent or criticize the state’s decision to release inmates who have earned credits that made them eligible for early release. 

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said California’s preoccupation with reducing inmate population following a Supreme Court order means fewer inmates. With fewer inmates with firefighting training and experience incarcerated, the Sheriff says losing the “nearly free labor” means the state must spend hundreds of millions of dollars on expensive firefighters.

The move, he argued, will offset the savings got from the inmate firefighting programs in the first place.