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Fired Up for a Fresh Start

Dario Gurrola lives and breathes firefighting. In hard-hit Northern California, he’s on the front line right now, serving his community by protecting homes and lives. And he couldn’t be more qualified. He’s done all the training, he has dozens of certifications, and this is his fourth season fighting wildfires.

So what job does California prohibit Dario from doing full time? You guessed it. Firefighting. That’s because, in California, a firefighting career—and the stability and pay that come with it—almost always requires an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, a basic credential verifying knowledge of CPR and first aid. Dario passed the EMT test, but he can’t get certified. The reason? Two crimes he committed 15 years ago.

Dario struggled as a young adult, falling in with a tough crowd in high school and getting in trouble with the law as a result. While serving time for two felonies for fighting and illegally carrying a knife, he realized he had to turn his life around. He decided to devote his life to being a first responder. Since his release from prison in 2011, he’s put his past behind him and proven he’s qualified to be a firefighter. But now California is dousing his dreams.

The state categorically bans anyone with a felony conviction from getting EMT certification for 10 years after release. And it bars people with two felony convictions, like Dario, forever. Nothing Dario has done, and nothing he can ever do, will change that. Instead, California turns away even the most qualified applicants, no matter the crime or the years since—even though California is desperate for extra help fighting a record number of blazes.

Most incredibly of all, California does this even though some of its most important firefighters are prisoners. Each year, thousands of incarcerated Californians work alongside state firefighters, extinguishing blazes and—in theory—learning job skills. Dario himself first learned to fight fires while he was in custody. But California still says he can never find fulfilling, long-term work as a firefighter.

Dario is not alone. More than 19 million Americans have a criminal record, making it exceedingly difficult for them to earn an honest living and become productive members of society. And nationwide, there are about 30,000 “collateral consequence” laws on the books—laws that limit people’s rights because of past mistakes. What’s worse, restrictions on the ability to work often apply even when they have no bearing on the job people with convictions want to do.

Banning Dario from receiving his EMT certification doesn’t protect Californians; it just deprives them of a committed and qualified firefighter. If California trains prisoners to be firefighters, it can give Dario a basic certification for which he’s already passed the test. So IJ has joined Dario in filing a federal lawsuit to strike down this irrational—and unconstitutional—ban.

The chance to support yourself matters. And it especially matters to people who have paid their debts and are struggling to reenter society. To ban people from working, the government must have a good reason. IJ will keep fighting to strike down unconstitutional laws like this one that deny Dario—and others like him—the second chance they have earned.

Andrew Ward is an IJ attorney.

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