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California bill allows inmate firefighters to pursue careers in the field after incarceration

At least 19 dead in western wildfires
At least 19 dead in western wildfires 03:58

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Friday to expunge the records of nonviolent offenders who have fought fires for the state while in prison, allowing them to pursue careers as firefighters and first responders once released. California law previously compelled emergency service agencies to deny certification to anyone convicted of two or more felonies, on parole, or who has committed a felony within the last decade.

"(This bill) will help give people opportunity and hope," Newsom said at a press conference on Friday, held in the burned-out, and still smoke-filled, Yuba County park north of Sacramento.

The governor noted that thousands of prisoners are on the frontlines battling historic fires burning across California, calling their contribution to suppressing the flames "heroic" and "demonstrable." About 20% of California's fire crews are inmates. 

"This bill ... will give those prisoners hope of actually getting a job in the profession that they've been trained," he said.

The bill opens the door for members of California's special Conservation Fire Camp program, which allows certain inmates to join the battle against massive blazes, to file a petition to both expunge their records and waive parole time, CBS San Francisco reports

Firefighting inmates 01:49

Newsom said some members of the legislature did not support the bill, which has been in development since former Governor Jerry Brown's administration.

"Small number of people didn't feel it was appropriate to give these folks a second chance, and that was unfortunate," he said. "But the good news, what's fortunate, enough did."

"Signing AB 2147 into law is about giving second chances. To correct is to right a wrong; to rehabilitate is to restore," said the bill's author, assemblymember Eloise Gomez Reyes, in a statement. "Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those that show the determination to turn their lives around."

"This legislation rights a historic wrong and recognizes the sacrifice of thousands of incarcerated people who have helped battle wildfires in our state, and I would like to thank the Legislature for passing this bill," Newsom said.

The coronavirus pandemic has greatly impacted the state's inmate firefighting crews, CBS Sacramento reports. To prevent the virus from spreading behind bars, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation began releasing prisoners on July 1 who had 180 days or fewer left on their sentences — including inmates participating in the conservation camp program.

According to Cal Fire, inmate fire crews were cut down from 192 crews to 94 as a result of the early releases as well as quarantine measures. A total of 5,627 inmates have been released early since July, leaving 600 fewer inmate firefighters available this fire season compared to last year.

Depleted crews are currently battling six of the 20 largest wildfires in California history. As of Saturday, the fires burned an estimated 2,277,922 acres, according to Cal Fire, and killed at least 19 people.

A buildup of brush has sparked some of the blazes, but climate change is making fires worse, says CBS News meteorologist and climate specialist Jeff Berardelli. Air temperatures in the West have risen over the past few decades, which adds energy and heat to the atmosphere. That causes a "moisture deficit," which can explain almost all of the increase in burned areas since the 1970s, research shows, according to Berardelli. 

Newsom on Friday directly blamed climate change, echoing Berardelli's explanation. 

"The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California," the governor said. "…The extreme droughts, the extreme atmospheric rivers, the extreme heat ... we have experienced the hottest August in California history."

"We had 14,000 dry lightning strikes over a three-day period," Newsom noted. "We are experiencing world record-breaking temperatures in the state of California — 130 degrees. We had 121-degree temperatures in L.A. County."

He added, "if you don't believe in science, I hope you believe in observed evidence ... you walk around this community ... you see a reality — a reality that has set in in this state in very indelible ways. That is, we are in midst of a climate crisis. We are in the midst of a climate emergency."

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