Prisoners fighting California fires denied licenses after release

Nick Sibilla, a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice, has published this fine op ed piece in today’s USA Today, describing how the 2,000 state prisoners currently engaged in fighting the largest fire in California history, are barred from obtaining the necessary EMT license that would enable them to continue this work after their release.  It contains, inter alia, a description of the two bills currently pending in the California legislature that would end what Nick describes as a “bitterly ironic” situation, where prisoners gain valuable training in certain vocations that they cannot use after their release.  The piece seems particularly relevant, in light of the amazing work being done on occupational licensing reform across the country, much of it inspired by the Institute for Justice’s Model Collateral Consequences in Occupational Licensing Act.   See, e.g. New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Kansas, Indiana, Arizona, and Tennessee.  We hope California will soon join this group of enlightened jurisdictions, and that other states will follow in the coming year.

Despite fighting California’s largest fires, inmates are denied licenses they need to become firefighters after they get out.

by Nick Sibilla, USA Today, August 20, 2018

As California struggles to contain the largest fire in state history, more than 2,000 inmates have volunteered to fight the flames. Offering just $1 an hour, the state has long  encouraged low-level prisoners to risk their lives and serve alongside professional firefighters, who earn nearly $74,000 a year on average. Firefighting, along with less life-threatening trades like plumbing, welding, and cosmetology, is one of several vocational training programs offered to prisoners by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

But in a bitterly ironic twist, once inmates leave prison, they often can’t work as firefighters, despite their frontline experience. In California, nearly all counties require firefighters to become licensed emergency medical technician (EMTs) — a credential that can be denied to almost anyone with a criminal record.

Many are denied jobs for their criminal record

Nor are firefighters the only position off-limits. Under California law, the state’s licensing boards can deny a credential on the basis of an applicant’s criminal record or alleged misconduct. Thanks to the rise in occupational licensing, nearly 1,800 occupations now require a license, certification, or clearance in the Golden State, affecting one-fourth of California’s workforce. As a result, hundreds of different occupations are effectively barred to roughly 8 million Californians.

California’s firefighting felons are a particularly stark illustration of a growing, national problem. According to the American Bar Association, the nation’s occupational and business licensing laws contain over 27,000 restrictions on ex-offenders, including bans on working as barbers or hosting bingo games. Those barriers impose significant costs. Research by the Center for Economic and Policy estimates that in 2014, employment barriers for the incarcerated and those with felony convictions cost the nation’s economy up to $87 billion in annual GDP, equal to “the loss of 1.7 to 1.9 million workers.”

Not only do these policies slam the door on economic opportunity, they may also increase re-offending. A recent study from Arizona State University found that states with more burdensome licensing laws saw their average recidivism rates jump by nine percent. By comparison, states with fewer licensing restrictions and no moralizing provisions had recidivism rates decline by 2.5 percent, on average. In fact, licensing burdens were second only to the overall labor market climate when it came to influencing recidivism rates.

California is trying to fix the problem

Fortunately, new legislation would curb some of California’s licensing barriers against ex-offenders. As part of a public safety omnibus signed earlier this year, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL-FIRE) can certify former prison firefighters as “emergency medical responders,” a certification CAL-FIRE accepts in lieu of an EMT license for some state firefighter jobs. A separate bill would require agencies to report the number of applicants with a criminal conviction who have been denied or granted an EMT license, which would provide valuable data for further reforms.

More broadly, another bill, AB 2138, would tighten the standard used to disqualify ex-offenders by the Department of Consumer Affairs, which governs 38 different boards, bureaus and commissions. Under the bill, boards could not use a conviction older than five years to reject a license (though that would not apply to violent felonies).

Each board would also have to publish the criteria it uses to evaluate applicants, which must include any evidence of rehabilitation, the time elapsed since the offense as well as the nature and gravity of the offense. Critically, boards could only use convictions, not arrests or records from dismissed cases. AB 2138 has already passed the Assembly earlier this year and is currently under consideration in the Senate.

California could soon join 16 states that have already eased or eliminated licensing barriers for Americans with criminal records since 2015. Many of these state reforms protect the ability of ex-offenders to get the permits they need, while also ensuring that boards only deny applicants who would truly threaten public safety.

California needs fewer requirements to work

These efforts are all welcome reforms to a system in desperate need of an overhaul. Yet even if former inmates aren’t automatically barred because of their past mistakes, burdensome licensing requirements can still keep them from working. According to a recent, nationwide study by the Institute for Justice (where I work), the average license for a lower-income occupation takes almost a year of education or experience.

California ranked as the “worst licensing environment for workers in lower-income occupations,” with the average license requiring a staggering 827 days of training. Absurdly, becoming a professional tree trimmer, barber, or painting contractor in California takes vastly more experience than becoming an EMT, who literally holds the lives of others in their hands.

A steady job is one of the best ways to prevent re-offending. But strict occupational licensing requirements make it harder for ex-offenders to find work. The denial of so many fundamental civil rights and liberties has essentially turned many ex-offenders into second-class citizens. Restoring the right to earn an honest living is crucial for ex-offenders to regain a sense of hope and a new chance at redemption.

Nick Sibilla is a legislative analyst at the Institute for Justice. You can follow him on Twitter: @nick_sibilla

More: Louisiana is the only state that requires occupational licenses for florists. It’s absurd.

Ridiculous licensing rules are holding back people who want to work

Prisoners who risk their lives during Calif. wildfires shouldn’t be shut out of profession