As wildfires raged across California last summer — putting lives and homes at risk and leaving the state in an orange haze — Dario Gurrola was in his element. The Cal Fire firefighter was battling blaze after blaze, including the North Complex Sheep Fire in Susanville, which torched nearly 30,000 acres and destroyed 26 structures.
“It was intense, it was high-adrenaline, high-pressure,” Gurrola, 39, said. “Cutting lines, people evacuating, us doing what we had to do to protect the houses and prioritize the lives of people and homes.”
But once the North Complex fire was out, once the critical need for firefighters in the state eased, once fire season was over, Gurrola was out of a job. A criminal record — two felony convictions handed down in 2003 and 2005 — prevent him from getting an EMT license, and without one, he can’t get hired for a full-time firefighting position in California.
“It’s not fair that they’re going to deny me my license for something I did 16 years ago when here I am fighting for California,” Gurrola said. “I don’t think that’s right.”
Strict state occupational licensing laws are some of the biggest barriers people with criminal records face when trying to find employment. And with 1 in 5 people in the United States needing a license to work — from cosmetologists to accountants, electricians to lawyers — and 1 in 3 adults with a criminal record, millions of people are banned from jobs that they are otherwise qualified to do and that could put them on a better path.
Over the past few years, however, there has been a strong push across the country to ease these restrictions. Advocates have been gathering data and educating state lawmakers on why the laws are unfair and should be changed. And if that doesn’t work, they’re taking the states to court.
“Sometimes these convictions are relatively minor, they’re very, very old, they are things they did when they were teenagers, and now it’s 10, 20 years later, and they’re still being affected,” said Erica Smith, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, which filed a lawsuit in California last summer challenging the law that was stymieing Gurrola’s career path. “If you can’t get a job because of something you did when you were a teenager, then how are you going to move forward, how are you going to support your family, how are you going to support yourself? So this is crucial.”
The Long Fight
The irony is that Gurrola first discovered his love for firefighting when he was incarcerated in California and sent to firefighting training camp at the age of 19. From there, he was moved to a fire camp in Ventura County, where he would not only fight real fires but have a genuine Cal Fire captain.
That captain worked them hard, Gurrola said, but also treated the incarcerated youth with respect and would give them pep talks, telling them that if they wanted to change their lives, this was a career they could pursue.
“At the time, I thought my career was over, that once I screwed up, I wouldn’t have a chance in life anymore,” Gurrola said. “But [he] definitely gave me hope. Don’t get me wrong, I still got into more trouble, but that guy, he had planted the seed. That never left me.”
Gurrola wouldn’t think of that conversation for another decade. In 2003, he was convicted of a felony for illegally carrying a hidden knife, and in 2005, a fight with a security guard while he was under the influence brought a conviction of felony assault. In 2011, he left prison a changed man after becoming a Christian and deciding to turn things around. He got baptized, took Bible study classes, and volunteered with the homeless.
Remembering what his Cal Fire captain had told him 10 years before, Gurrola reached out to the U.S. Forest Service and applied to be on an on-call team. In 2013, he was hired as a seasonal firefighter.
Gurrola knew that his felony record would keep him from becoming a career firefighter — California banned anyone with a felony conviction from obtaining an EMT license for 10 years after their release, and it banned people with two felony convictions, like him, forever — but he plowed forward with his ambition of one day working as a firefighter in San Diego, where his family lives.
“People tell me that I’m really stubborn,” he said. “Like, I don’t take no for an answer. If I want it, I’m going to get it, and I’m going to fight hard to get it. How bad do you want it, and how long are you willing to wait to get it?”
Over the years, Gurrola completed a 212-hour EMT basic training course, passed the national EMT certification exam, completed a firefighting academy, volunteered for three years at fire departments through a college program, and began working toward his associate degree in fire science. But all that, plus his seasonal experience fighting fires, wasn’t enough for California.
So Gurrola continued to work seasonally, which doesn’t require an EMT license. After the Forest Service, he took a job at a small fire department in Alturas in Northern California, and in June, he was hired by Cal Fire — the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection — for work in the same region. He just finished his first season with the state agency in December.
There was a glimmer of hope last summer when the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm and Arnold Ventures grantee, teamed up with Gurrola in its lawsuit against the licensing ban and launched a media blitz, drawing attention to the issue as an unprecedented number of fires swept through California.
The state responded with legislation that would allow some people who fought fires in prison to have their records expunged, which would make them eligible to get their EMT licenses and become career firefighters. The legislation passed, and the governor signed the bill in the ultimate photo op — at a desk in the middle of a burned-out forest, declaring that “this legislation rights a historic wrong.”
But the legislation didn’t help Gurrola — or countless others with convictions. That’s because the narrow bill allows people to request an expungement only if they served their sentence for that conviction at the same time they were trained and fought fires in a prison camp. Gurrola trained a few years before his felony convictions, so they aren’t eligible for expungement.
Gurrola and the Institute for Justice have kept their lawsuit open, hoping that he and others in similar situations will also get relief.
“The state wants to hold the past against me,” he said. “I changed my life a long time ago. … I go to people’s homes, I help people, I perform CPR on people, I’m a firefighter. I do the same thing that city firefighters do. What difference does it make?”
Eliana Green, an Equal Justice Works fellow at Root & Rebound, an Arnold Ventures grantee that provides legal help and other resources to Californians harmed by mass incarceration, said it’s upsetting that lawmakers cite “public safety” as a reason to ban those with convictions from getting their EMT licenses, but they see no problem — or public safety issue — when incarcerated people and seasonal workers like Gurrola are called upon to fight fires when the state needs help.
“It’s infuriating because it’s a larger reflection of our history in America: We are willing to put Black and brown bodies in harm’s way when it provides an economic benefit to this country. That was what this country was built on,” Green said. “And it continues to be that way quite literally. [Firefighting is] one of the most dangerous jobs you can have, and we’re willing for you to do this when we don’t have the resources to put the fires out, but when you want to create stability [with a job], then it becomes an issue.”
Katherine Katcher, the founder and executive director of Root & Rebound, which is also challenging the California law, agrees.
“It speaks to the fact that this group of people is seen as dispensable,” Katcher said. “The state essentially is saying, ‘We will use you when we need you, and when we’re done, we will throw you out. When you get out of prison, if you are lucky, you can get a minimum-wage job at a gas station — but never be a part of such an esteemed profession.’ And that is not OK. That’s why this litigation is so important. The state cannot speak out of both sides of its mouth.”
A Nationwide Problem
Over the years, as the Institute for Justice has been pushing for occupational licensing reform across the nation, it has come to realize just how damaging — and unfair — many of the licensing laws are to those with criminal records.
Take Pennsylvania’s restrictions on estheticians. Up until last summer, the state’s cosmetology board was denying licenses to people with convictions based on what it perceived to be a lack of “good moral character.”
“So you weren’t allowed to paint nails, you weren’t allowed to tweeze hair, you weren’t allowed to do facials unless you proved you were a good person,” said Smith of the Institute for Justice. “And this wasn’t just a law that was on the books but never enforced; it was aggressively enforced, and hundreds of women were denied a license.”
One of the institute’s clients was asked by the cosmetology board if she went to church and if she had proof she went to church. She was asked if she volunteered and if she had proof she volunteered. “It was very, very invasive,” Smith said.
In December 2018, the institute sued the state of Pennsylvania, and last summer, a court ruled that the outdated, discriminatory law — barbers weren’t held to the same standard — was unconstitutional and should be taken off the books.
But countless other restrictions remain, and the institute has documented them in a 50-state survey of occupational licensing laws that it released last summer. The survey will be used by the institute to pursue other cases for litigation as it works to dismantle the laws that are “not just in particular states,” said Scott Bullock, president and general counsel of the Institute for Justice. “This is a nationwide problem that merits careful scrutiny and action and ultimately reform.”
Outlining the barriers erected in all 50 states — and grading the states based on those barriers — is also helpful when pitching legislation to specific jurisdictions.
“A lot of times when we’re working with legislatures, they tend to operate in a vacuum, and they don’t have a good sense of what everyone else is doing,” Smith said. “All they know is we’re doing this, and it makes sense. But once you go to that state and say, ‘Hey, you’re actually last in the pack, you got an F, and all the other states got this score,’ we find that to be incredibly effective in passing reform.”
The institute has also drafted model legislation that can be used by jurisdictions interested in pursuing licensing reform. With the model, the institute was able to help six states and Washington, D.C., pass reforms last year.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP), another group leading the fight for fair chance licensing reform, has also produced model legislation on this issue. In December, NELP released eight state-specific fact sheets that highlight growing occupations where the law requires a criminal background check; the fact sheets offer recommendations for fair chance licensing reforms that could maximize access to those economic opportunities.
One of the suggestions in the Institute for Justice’s model legislation is allowing a person to petition a licensing board early on to find out if their past conviction will bar them from getting the license they need — before they spend money on classes, tests, and training.
“Oftentimes, they’ll just throw up their hands and look at the law and say, ‘Well, I probably can’t do that — I’ve got this record.’ It allows them to get that preclearance before they invest that money,” Bullock said.
‘Like Filing Another Appeal’
It’s a piece of legislation that could have helped X. (Because of the stigma attached to his conviction, X. asked to remain anonymous.)
In 2003, he was convicted of second-degree attempted murder for an incident that happened when he was 18 and given a sentence of 34 years to life. For years, with his appeals denied left and right, he would sit in his cell with his indeterminate sentence hanging over him.
“I thought that was the end of it,” he said. “I figured it was over.”
X. looked for a way to give his life purpose and found it in books: John Grisham novels and Spanish-language textbooks and books on accounting. When an opportunity to take college courses through a prison program opened up, he leapt at it. He learned to speak three languages fluently. He found out he had an aptitude for numbers. And in 2012, he earned his bachelor’s degree.
In 2016, new evidence was put forward in his case and X. was offered a plea deal. Having maintained his innocence for more than a decade, he was hesitant to plead guilty, but he also wanted to have a chance at a real life — where he could continue to pursue his education and perhaps have a career as an accountant.
As his days in prison were winding down, he reached out to the state to see if his conviction would prevent him from getting his CPA license and was told it was a “case-by-case decision.” So he plowed ahead, looked into MBA programs, and scheduled his GMAT test for 13 days after his release.
He aced his exam and started grad school. But life on the outside wouldn’t be easy. Rejected by the jobs he applied for, he ended up washing dishes at a local restaurant.
“I had a really hard time coping because I was getting rejected,” X. said. Money was out and jobs were going nowhere. He looked at his girlfriend and said, “Listen, I just want to go home” — home meaning prison. At least there, he said, he wouldn’t have to worry about such problems.
Eventually, he was able to land a low-level position at a CPA firm doing bookkeeping. He wasn’t earning much, but he was able to support himself and decided to plow forward and take his CPA exams. Every day, he’d get up at 4 a.m. to study, work for nine hours at the firm, and then take grad school classes at night. He passed all four of the CPA exams on the first try.
A month after his exams, X. took what was supposed to be his last step, applying for his CPA license, a process that typically takes a few days. But because a background check was involved, the licensing board said it would need to investigate his conviction before making a decision. The process would end up taking six months. During that time, X. was a wreck.
“It felt like I was filing another appeal with the courts, I was that nervous,” he said. “It was agonizing.
“The whole thing is subjective,” he said. “They don’t have a whole bunch of criteria and say if it’s a, b, or c, then you don’t get a license.”
X. knew that if he was denied his license, an appeals process would take time and money that he didn’t have. So he reached out to a group he had come to know in prison: Root & Rebound. The nonprofit told him they would be poised to assist with representation if he needed it.
In the meantime, his co-workers peppered him with questions about his license and why he hadn’t received it yet. X. — who hasn’t revealed his record to anyone since stepping out of prison — would brush it off by making up excuses.
“I’m in finance, and while a lot of people are open-minded, there are a lot of people who are conservative who don’t necessarily like the idea of a CPA that has a past,” he said. “The country is just not there yet.”
Eventually, X. got word that he was granted his license. He could finally exhale, though the whole experience soured him on a system that seems to actively work against people who are just seeking a better life.
“They don’t want me to get a license. They don’t want me to get a nice home. They’d rather I go wash dishes,” X. said. “I guess in their mind, anybody who gets out of prison should be doing construction or washing dishes. But you have intelligent people in there. You have people who are actually going to take the time for learning and bettering themselves. I’m one of them, but I’m not the only one. A lot of people have great potential but unfortunately got caught up in a situation.
“You would think, if anything, they would make it easier for us to get a license,” X. said. “Because it’s a way out. But they don’t do that — it’s the opposite.”
Short-Term Help and Long-Term Solutions
Root & Rebound has for years focused its efforts in California and South Carolina, providing immediate resources to those like X. who are affected by mass incarceration. But recently, the nonprofit decided to expand its work into advocacy — hoping to effect change on an even bigger scale through legislation and litigation.
After years of working on the ground, Katcher, who founded the organization in 2013, saw the critical need not only for short-term help but long-term solutions.
“It was a glaring gap and need, frankly, in our work,” Katcher said. “I have a more profound understanding that we need to be working in two different planes: We need to be ending human suffering and fighting for people’s families right now … and at the same time, we need to be working for the future that we want to see in 10 years, in 15 years, in 20 years.”
That second plane includes an additional strategy of litigation, legislation, and policy work — and once a strong base is built, sharing a toolbox of best practices with advocates in other states.
The organization is already building its case studies. In July, Root & Rebound co-led the efforts to pass a fair licensing bill in California that impacts 30 percent of all jobs in the state and makes it easier for 8 million Californians with criminal records to obtain professional licenses. The new law, in part, says that criminal convictions must be substantially related to the qualifications or duties required by the profession in order to be the basis to deny a license. The nonprofit is also looking to file litigation against boards in South Carolina that deny licenses to applicants with convictions unrelated to the jobs they seek.
It’s an effort that X. applauds and hopes will have a sweeping effect so others aren’t forced to be at the mercy of a subjective licensing board like he was.
“I was pretty much in their hands,” X. said, “and they could squish me if they wanted to or they could let me live.”
The Reintegration team welcomes your comments and ideas as they shape their work. Please email at email@example.com.