By Annie Sciacca
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.
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.