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On Friday, Governor Gavin Newsom visited the area surrounding Lake Oroville in Northern California on Friday, hit hard by wildfires in recent days. (Sept. 1

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AP Domestic

On Friday, the governor of California passed a bill that will give prisoners fighting massive fires in the state the chance to avoid a different battle after their release: to find a job.

Under California law AB2147, Governor Gavin Newsom allows some prisoners who are at the forefront of fire containment to have their papers canceled after serving their sentences. The goal is to make it easier for them to have a firefighting career after release.

Criminal records are often an obstacle to employment. Newsom said he wants to give prisoners a chance to become firefighters and that removing their criminal history will make it more possible.

“The California detainee firefighters program is decades old and has long been in need of reform,” Newsom told Twitter Friday. “Inmates who have been on the front lines fighting historic fires should not be denied the right to later become a professional firefighter.”

Newsom signed the bill against a backdrop of gray ash and charred trees near Lake Oroville, the site of one of the most devastating of the many fires that have charred the state in recent weeks. At least 20 people died in the fires in California, according to Cal Fire.

The bill excludes those who have been convicted of certain crimes, including murder, kidnapping, rape, arson or any crime punishable by death or life in prison.

California has struggled in recent years to field a sufficient number of detained firefighters due to changes in state law that have reduced the number of lower-level criminals in state prisons. The court rulings also ended some of the incentives for inmates to risk their lives by fighting fires when they could earn similar early release credits with less dangerous duties.

The shortage has grown this year, as thousands more inmates were released early in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus in prisons, prompting the number of firefighters in detention to decline by about 30% from last year.

The new law could create a new incentive, allowing former detainees firefighters, after their release, to ask a judge to withdraw their guilty plea. The judge could choose to dismiss the charges.

Deportation would give former firefighters a chance to apply for any of the more than 200 occupations that require a state license, a missed opportunity for most people with a criminal record, according to the Assembly Eloise Reyes, a Democrat from San Bernardino who wrote the bill.

“These individuals have received invaluable training and put themselves in danger to defend the life and property of Californians,” he said in a legislative analysis. “Those people who successfully complete their service in the fire camps should receive special consideration in connection with their underlying criminal conviction.”

The District Attorney Association had opposed the bill, saying that record clearing should be limited to lower-level offenders, few of whom remain in state prisons. He said the incentive should be limited to those sent to county jails and not state prisons.

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Contributing: The Associated Press

Read or share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2020/09/11/california-gov-gavin-newsom-signed-bill-give-prisoners-shot-becoming-firefighters-after- release / 5775119002 /