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Amika Mota’s training for her first gig at a firehouse was thorough. She learned to perform CPR, use the Jaws of Life to pry people out of cars, and pull the massive fire hoses from trucks to battle blazes. But even with a top-notch training program and two and a half years of experience, her job opportunities looked bleak when her time at Madera County Fire Station No. 5 was done.
That’s because Mota’s stint as a firefighter came at the end of her seven-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. And while her all-female crew blended in well with other firehouse crews on the scene at any disaster, their prison records are a big, red flag to getting the paramedic’s license many fire departments require.
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A package of bills making its way through the California legislature could change the career outlook for people like Mota, who have gone through job training programs in prison but been denied access to higher paying jobs because their records prevent them from getting licensed. The bills would prohibit many state licensing boards — including those that oversee barbers, building contractors, paramedics and social workers — from using arrest or conviction records as the sole basis to deny professional licenses to applicants with nonviolent criminal arrests or convictions.
Supporters say the proposed laws would help reduce the challenges in getting professional licenses for about 8 million Californians. Opponents, however, say the licensing boards already accept many applicants with criminal histories and the changes could pose a greater risk to public safety.
Experts say jobs are an important part of keeping people from going back to prison — especially jobs with decent wages, not the minimum-wage work former prisoners often must take. In California, about 30 percent of all jobs require professional licenses granted by state boards.
“A lot of (prison) programs actually train people how to do these jobs, how to have a career in this, without telling them they’ll be banned from getting the license,” said Jael Myrick, a Richmond city councilman and program coordinator of the Clean Slate Program at the East Bay Community Law Center, which is sponsoring the bills. “That’s the issue we’re trying to fix.”
The bills would not prevent state licensing boards from rejecting applicants convicted of violent offenses or crimes directly related to a field they want to enter. For example, a board could still ban someone convicted of harming children from getting a license for any job working with youth.
Assembly Bill 2293, introduced by Assemblymember Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-San Bernardino, would prevent the Emergency Medical Services Authority — which licenses paramedics and EMTs — from denying, suspending, or revoking licenses for anyone with a criminal record who has demonstrated a level of rehabilitation. While firefighters don’t legally need paramedic or EMT certification to get hired, many departments give preference to certified applicants or require licenses for certain positions, especially in urban departments that also provide emergency medical services. That’s why Mota said she was discouraged from applying for firefighter jobs when she got out of prison.
A similar bill — AB2138 by Assemblymembers David Chiu, D-San Francisco, and Evan Low, D-Silicon Valley — would prevent the Department of Consumer Affairs from denying licenses issued by 42 bureaus and boards on the sole basis of a criminal conviction or arrest. And a third bill, AB3039, would prevent the Department of Social Services, which licenses those who work in community care facilities, with foster youth, or as home health aides, among other jobs, from denying licenses unless an applicant was convicted of a crime related to the job they are seeking or within the last five years.
Richard Markuson, a lobbyist for the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors Association, said in a letter to Chiu that “the construction industry has substantial direct contact with members of the public – including in their homes,” and that it is “essential to the industry and the public, that (the Contractors State License Board) continue to have the latitude to evaluate a criminal history to verify that that history does not indicate a risk to the public.”
The Emergency Medical Services Administrators Association of California and the Emergency Medical Directors Association of California have expressed similar concerns and said the bills could increase costs for EMS agencies if they receive more applications that require deeper evaluations of applicants’ backgrounds.
But advocates for former prisoners say they see far too many people turned away from careers they are qualified for based on convictions or arrests that are often years in the past or have nothing to do with the jobs they are seeking.
Myrick said many clients at the East Bay Community Law Center who have criminal records are given conditional offers by employers, only to lose out on jobs as they wait for a lengthy state board investigation that may or may not grant them the license.
“We believe in public safety,” said Katherine Katcher, executive director of Root and Rebound, a reentry advocacy group that is also sponsoring the bills. “We want to keep consumers safe and also keep communities safe by giving people in communities more opportunities. There is this balance.”
Amika Mota, prison re-entry director, takes part in leadership and advocacy training at the Young Women’s Freedom Center in San Francisco, Calif., on Thursday, May 17, 2018. A package of bills that is making its way through the state assembly that would make it easier for former prisoners or people with a criminal record to get the occupational licenses needed for jobs.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)
After about six months of searching with little success, Mota got a job with the Young Women’s Freedom Center, a San Francisco nonprofit that helps women adjust to life after their release from jail or prison. The 40-year-old former firefighter is now the prison reentry director.
The numerous job rejections she got in her first few months out of prison were “devastating,” said Mota. “You’re trying to figure out what it means to piece your life back together.”
Mota started her first business as a midwife at 21 and built a life for herself and her three children. But she said a drug problem eventually led to her conviction for vehicular manslaughter after she ran a red light 12 years ago, killing a 69 year-old man.
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“It was an accident, but it was a reckless behavior. It was clearly my mistake,” Mota said. “There is nothing I could do to repair that or give this man his life back or his family.”
In prison and afterward, she wanted to do work that helped others, like she had before her crime. While she didn’t get to continue firefighting, she hopes others can: “It’s refreshing that we have so many bills being proposed that are in support of second chances.”