November 13, 2018


There Are 200 California Inmates Fighting the Camp Fire. After Prison, They Likely Won't Be Allowed to Become Firefighters (Eric Boehm, Nov. 12, 2018, reason)

Those inmate fightfighters are volunteers who earn $2 a day, and $1 an hour when fighting an active fire, while working alongside professionals who get paid an average of $74,000 per year. Those significant cost savings are part of the reason why convicts can account for up to half of the firefighting personnel on the scene at any California wildfire, according to a 2017 profile of the state's inmate firefighter program by The New York Times.

California's inmate firefighter program is open to prisoners who are not convicted of arson, sexual crimes, kidnapping or gang-related offenses, as long as they do not have a history of escape attempts and are not facing a life sentence. They receive two weeks of firefighting training and must pass a physical exam.

As I wrote in August, most of California's inmate firefighters will not be able to work in the firefighting profession after they are released because of the state's deliberately exclusionary licensing laws. Firefighters in California are required to be licensed as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), which requires taking classes and passing a few state-administered exams. No problem there, but state law allows licensing boards to block anyone with a criminal record from getting an EMT license.

These so-called "blanket bans" on letting formerly incarcerated individuals obtain mandatory licenses don't do much to improve public safety--if someone is a legitimate threat to the public, or has been convicted of certain crimes, the licensing board could block that individual application without denying a job opportunity to scores of others--and may increase crime in the long run. Indeed, a 2017 study by the Center for the Study of Economic Liberty at Arizona State University found that formerly incarcerated residents are more likely to commit a new crime within three years of being released from prison if they live in a state that prohibits them from getting a license solely due to a criminal record.

Instead of a blanket ban, California should rewrite its licensing laws to include prohibitions for specific criminal offenses--exactly how the California Department of Corrections operates their inmate firefighter program, for example, by prohibiting individuals who committed certain crimes. 

Posted by at November 13, 2018 4:06 AM