AB 2147, legislation by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) which would provide an expedited expungement process for inmates that have successfully participated as inmate hand crews (actively assisting with fire suppression activities), passed the State Assembly with bipartisan support.
Under existing law, once released from custody a former inmate must finish the terms of their parole before applying for expungement of their criminal record. Even once those records are expunged, the person must disclose their criminal history on applications for state licenses. With nearly 200 occupations that require licensing from one of 42 California government departments and agencies these former inmates are almost entirely denied access to these jobs, as an estimated 2.5 million California workers (approximately 17% of the state’s workforce) need a professional license to work. Under, AB 2147 a person that participates as part of a state or county fire camp would be eligible to apply for expungement upon release from custody, and if the expungement is approved, could seek various career pathways including those that require a state license.
“These individuals are vetted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, under CDCR’s strict criteria, and they assist with protecting communities all across this state during our fire seasons which have become more frequent and more deadly.” Assemblymember Reyes continued, “If we are willing to allow an incarcerated person to volunteer and help fight fires – protecting lives and property while putting their lives at risk; then we should be willing to allow those same individuals an opportunity to receive an expungement which can be granted after judicial review.”
Roughly 2500 inmates from the Conservation Camp program volunteer and train to serve on fire crews to battle fires across the state. In 2017, 650 inmate hand crews assisted in suppressing the Pocket, Tubbs, and Atlas Fires. In 2018, close to 800 inmates assisted with the Camp Fire and in 2019 over 400-inmate hand crews assisted with battling the Kincade Fire.
The California Conservation Camp Program was initiated by CDCR to provide able-bodied inmates the opportunity to work on meaningful projects throughout the state. Those projects can include clearing firebreaks, restoring historical structures, maintaining parks, sand bagging and flood protection, reforestation and clearing fallen trees and debris.
There are 43 conservation camps for adult offenders and one camp for juvenile offenders. The conservation camps make up approximately 219 fire-fighting crews and are jointly managed by CDCR and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as CalFire.
All inmates must earn the right to work in a conservation camp by their non-violent behavior and conformance to rules while they are incarcerated. Only minimum-custody inmates are eligible to volunteer for assignment in conservation camps.
In an average year, the Conservation Camp Program provides approximately three million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and seven million person-hours in community service projects, saving California taxpayers approximately $100 million annually.
Several counties across the state, including Los Angeles and San Bernardino, operate inmate fire training academies for county jail inmates utilizing several hundred jail inmates.
Despite their low-level risk status, dedication and willingness to put themselves in harm’s way, many who participated in these programs struggle to find permanent and stable employment once released. This is in part due to significant barriers in place for individuals with a prior conviction to seek employment or even the education necessary to start a career.
The intent of this bill is to provide an expedited expungement process in which an inmate who has participated in the California Conservation Camp Program as an inmate firefighter can begin their expungement process as soon as they have served their time. This individual may also be eligible for early termination of parole, if the court deems that the defendant has not violated any terms or conditions of probation or parole prior to, and during the petition for relief.