California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed a law that enables former inmates to withdraw guilty pleas and get their records expunged.
The bill "will help give people opportunity and hope," Newsom told reporters during a press conference outside of Oroville.
"And those are those prisoners that are out there, thousands of prisoners, that are on the frontlines, that are near the end of their time in prison, that are getting credits and want the opportunity, because of the training they're receiving, once they're out of the system, to be able to potentially join a workforce of which they've been trained and actively participated in heroic ways."
The Democrat signed the bill, A.B. 2147, on a picnic table in the middle of a town where numerous buildings were destroyed by the North Complex Fire.
Some 3,100 inmates are currently working in California as firefighters and support staff through the state's Conservation Camp Program.
The program gives inmates who volunteer entry-level training before sending them to fight fires. When not fighting fires, the teams perform conservation and community service projects like clearing brush and reforestation.
According to the legislation, defendants who participate in the program, or similar programs on the county-level, and have been released from custody, can petition to withdraw guilty pleas or pleas of nolo contendere and enter a plea of not guilty.
"The bill would allow the court, if the defendant is eligible for relief, to dismiss the accusations or information against the defendant at the court’s discretion and in the interest of justice and would release the defendant from all penalties and disabilities resulting from the offense, except as provided," it states.
Defendants convicted of violent felonies and sex offenses are ineligible for the new path.
The law was necessary because former prisoners struggled to obtain licenses and employment because of their criminal records, Newsom's office said.
State law, for instance, allowed the barring of EMT certification to anyone who had been convicted of two or more felonies.
Nearly 200 occupations require licensing from one of 42 state government departments and agencies, according to the office of Assemblymember Eloise Reyes, a Democrat who introduced the legislation, which was passed by state lawmakers earlier this year.
The bill "is about giving second chances," Reyes said in a statement.
"To correct is to right a wrong; to rehabilitate is to restore. Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career, is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those who show the determination and commitment to turn their lives around.”
Newsom acknowledged there were some who opposed the bill.
Peace Officers Research Association of California, which represents more than 77,000 public safety personnel in the state, was among the opposition.
“To fully expunge a felon’s record in exchange for this work is not warranted, is dangerous to the public, and fails to recognize the impact to the victims of the inmate’s crimes,” the group said in a recent statement.