Newsom signs bill to allow ex-inmates to become firefighters

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Amid a smoke-filled backdrop, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday to allow inmate firefighters to clear their criminal records so they can take steps to become firefighters as wildfires continue to rage throughout the state.

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The bill, AB 2147, expedites the process for inmates to clear their records so they can earn a certificate with the intention of obtaining a position in a fire department. The legislation will give people "on the front lines" hope, Newsom said before the signing.

"Thousands of prisoners are on the front lines, that are near the end of their time in prison, that are getting credits and want the opportunity," Newsom said during a news briefing on the North Complex Fire in Butte County, the site of deadly wildfires in recent years.

He said their training will allow the inmates to "potentially join a workforce of which they've been trained and have actively participated in heroic ways."

Prison inmates have long helped the state combat the increase in wildfires in recent years as fire resources have struggled to keep up. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Conservation Camps Program pays inmates around $1 an hour to fight fires and earn time off their prison sentences.

Around 200 inmates helped fight the fire in the 2018 Camp Fire in Butte County. Critics have argued that the skills learned don't benefit the inmates once they're released from prison since their criminal records often preclude them from obtaining professional firefighter positions.

Under the bill, an inmate would need to petition a court to set their convictions aside. Those convicted of violent felonies and sex offenses would not be eligible.

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During his briefing, Newsom, a Democrat, cited climate change for the increase in wildfires.

"It is here now, California is America fast-forward," he said. "What we're experiencing is coming to communities all across America unless we get our act together…This is a climate damn emergency."

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