Gavel, court, legal, judge, lawsuit

New Year’s Day is a time for fresh starts. But California lawmakers will not let Fernando Herrera turn the calendar by getting a emergency medical technician certification.

Due to crimes that he committed as a teenager, the state has imposed a permanent ban on him applying for an EMT certification, a pre-requisite for many careers, including firefighting. So, while Herrera fought wildfires while serving in a prison camp and while in the state’s Conservation Corp, he never can apply for an emergency medical technician certification.

The life sentence started when Herrera was just 15. While in youth detention, Fernando and his friends attacked another boy they had previously assaulted. Prosecutors threatened a host of charges related to the fight and a previous incident, prompting Fernando to take a plea deal that admitted to two adult felonies. He served his time and paid his debt to society. But California wants more.

In addition to the court-ordered discipline, state law tacks on extra penalties, called “collateral consequences.” These vary across the United States. Some jurisdictions rescind voting rights, revoke jury duty eligibility, block access to government housing or disqualify ex-offenders from receiving student loans.

California limits something even more fundamental: The right to earn an honest living. Rather than help people with records reenter the workforce, the government restricts their access to occupational licenses that are mandatory for 30% of California jobs. Modest reforms passed in 2018 reduce the barriers to many careers, but other occupations remain out of reach.

A single felony conviction, for example, bars a person from EMT certification for 10 years after completion of a criminal sentence. Two felony convictions trigger a lifetime ban, which means Herrera is barred forever because of teenage mistakes.

He is not alone. Dario Gurrola, a seasonal wildland firefighter from Alturas, near the Oregon state line, is also blocked from career advancement for crimes committed long ago.

While growing up in San Diego, he ran with a tough crowd and received two felony convictions. The first case involved possession of a concealed kitchen knife during a 2003 traffic stop, and the second case involved assault of a security guard in 2005. But he paid his full debt to society and turned his life around.

Rather than give up on their dreams, Herrera and Gurrola have partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Justice and fought back in federal court. Their lawsuit, filed in June and amended in September, seeks to force changes that other jurisdictions already have made.

Ex-offenders in Pennsylvania, for example, scored a double victory in 2020 following an Institute for Justice lawsuit on behalf of two aspiring beauty workers. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania struck down the arbitrary rules that created different morality standards for cosmetologists and barbers, calling it “absurd” that some criminal records could block an applicant from one occupation but not the other. The challenge also helped prompt state lawmakers to repeal morality tests for dozens of other licenses.

Council members in Washington, D.C., did not wait for litigation. They have proceeded with new legislation that will stop government boards from withholding licenses based on criminal convictions unless past offenses directly relate to a particular occupation.

A former drug dealer, for example, probably should not work as a pharmacist. But many criminal convictions have no connection to certain jobs. Nothing Herrera and Gurrola did in their youth should prevent them from giving back to society as first responders.

Communities need contributions from everyone, including people with criminal records. Pushing returning citizens onto the sidelines creates a hole in the economy, while robbing many willing workers of the dignity that comes with honest employment.

Each new year represents an opportunity to learn from the past and move forward. People with criminal records deserve the same opportunity. They did the crime, and they did the time. Now they need a chance at redemption.

Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.