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Prison Inmates Fighting California’s Wildfires Can’t Do It Once They’re Released

State laws ban ex-offenders from pursuing many occupations that they were trained to do on the inside

August 17, 2018

California is suffering from the worst spate of wildfires in its history. So far this year, the state has had about 4,200 fires that have consumed 1,135 square miles of territory, which is just a tad smaller than the state of Rhode Island. As of last week 14,000 firefighters from 17 states were contending with the conflagration, including a small contingent from Australia and New Zealand. 

Included in this count are more than 2,000 incarcerated people from the state’s minimum-security prisons. All of them are volunteers and undergo training by Cal Fire. “They do similar work to any firefighter,” the AP reported. “Most are on the frontlines, using chain saws and hand tools to reduce tinder-dry brush and trees to stop the flames.” 

These incarcerated people are paid $1 an hour when they’re in the field and $2 a day when they’re not on duty. Incarcerated firefighters also often have their sentences reduced.

Dangling incentives before men and women behind bars to risk their lives is problematic, of course. But even more disheartening is that an incarcerated person’s firefighting experience will have precisely zero utility once they’re released. That’s because California law bars those with a criminal record from becoming licensed emergency responders.

California is hardly the only state that bars the formerly incarcerated from many good jobs. According to an American Bar Association inventory, states have imposed at least 27,254 licensing restrictions on those with a criminal record. 

Nearly one in three adults has a record in the criminal justice system. And more than 25 percent of workers need a state license to practice their occupations. While prisons introduce training programs in professions ranging from cosmetology to carpentry to training service dogs, many of those people won’t be able to find jobs in their chosen professions after release. 

These so-called “blanket bans” on formerly incarcerated people are especially counterproductive because they bar them from deploying the expertise they accumulate while incarcerated. Gainful employment is one of the best tools to fight recidivism, and barring the formerly incarcerated from many jobs makes achieving productive employment more difficult. 

Moreover, these occupational barriers disproportionately affect women and people of color. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 43.6 percent of black women with criminal convictions are unemployed, compared to 18.4 percent of white men with criminal records. These bans are a disservice to those re-entering our communities and are hurting the country at large. A study by the Hamilton Project revealed state licensing restrictions have cost the economy 2.85 million jobs. 

Fortunately, policymakers are starting to recognize this injustice. Thirty-two states and 150 counties have adopted “ban the box” laws that bar questions about a criminal conviction from an initial job application. In June, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf proposed abolishing 13 licensing boards and amending the licensing requirements for others. Removing licensure altogether is not necessary, even though it may be warranted in some cases. Instead, states should work to remove a criminal history as a barrier to employment.