Da’Ton Harris, out of Victorville, appeared before a judge in San Bernardino County for the second time in months, hoping the judge would expunge his criminal record so he could have a chance at becoming a firefighter.
Harris showed up to court prepared with proof that he had battled wildfires while in prison and has become a certified emergency medical responder, only to have the judge turn him away, said the Los Angeles Times in a story by Erika D. Smith. In April, the judge delayed the proceedings to research the law. The judge had never heard of the law and this week Harris was turned away for the second time so the state can confirm his eligibility.
“They pretty much tried to deny me from the jump,” said Harris.
The New law, Assembly Bill 2147, was written by Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes (D-Grand
Terrace) and was signed into law last year by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Many saw this law as a solution to the long-running injustice of not letting prisoners, most of whom are Black and Latino, get firefighting jobs with proper pay and benefits upon their release. These men and women did the back-breaking work at fire camps by clearing brush and digging fire lines for slave wages.
Harris hired Attorney Giovanni Pesce, with the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, to get the judge to expunge his record so he can qualify to obtain his emergency medical technician license. Harris strives to land a job with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and to serve the community.
Harris is convinced that without Pesce, his case would have been thrown out, the Times reports.
Many judges have never heard of the new law. The Judicial Council of California hasn’t yet provided judges with the proper forms for AB2147 expungement. Thousands of Californians have been able to petition to have their felony records expunged under AB2147.
Chris Tracy was released early from prison, as part of the state’s safety precaution for COVID-19, according to the Times. He’s preparing to go before the judge with a petition for expungement. He’s worried that because of how the AB 2147 law is written, it won’t allow the court to do away with his previous felonies for auto theft. Without the expungement, Tracy won’t be able to qualify to earn his EMT license, which is necessary to be a fully certified firefighter.
“It’s a good bill,” Tracy said. “It’s meant well, but I think it’s written poorly because it’s not expansive enough for [all of] us to be able to get an EMT cert, which a lot of these fire stations are asking for. It kind of defeats the purpose.”
“Clearly, it’s not going to be perfect in its implementation because the judges and the attorneys and even the advocates are just learning about it,” said Reyes. “I think it’s important that we give grace in that regard.”
Harris is not giving up. He managed to find work as a firefighter with Cal Fire, despite a system that has kept so many hardworking aspiring firefighters out. Harris wants to work for a fire station in Victorville, close to home so he can be near his family and “get that real money.” He strives to continue to be a public servant.
Some newly released firefighters resort to looking for work with private companies that hire firefighters. According to the Los Angeles Times.
The state is ravaged by drought and California desperately needs trained firefighters. Men and women who gained experience battling wildfires while incarcerated shouldn’t face so many challenges to become certified firefighters upon their release, said the Times. Judges should recognize the men and women who come out of prison and desire to become public servants, battle wildfire, protect our lives and property.