Expedited Expungement and Its Limits: AB 2147 as a Peak of Progress


In September 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB) 2147, a bill creating an expedited expungement process for prisoners in California’s Conservation Camp Program. This bill purportedly removed a barrier that kept formerly incarcerated firefighters locked out of postrelease employment as professional firefighters. Experts and fire camp workers alike praised the bill as righting a historic wrong and taking a decisive step toward rewarding formerly incarcerated firefighters for their service to the state by offering them a pathway to gainful employment. This Comment uses two concepts from Critical Race Theory to unpack the circumstances that gave rise to the bill and to analyze its impact on future campaigns for the rights of people who are incarcerated.

The Comment explores the racialized nature of prison labor in the United States generally, and California specifically, as well as the racial politics at play in the fire camps. Then, it applies Derrick Bell’s interest convergence concept to show that the ongoing wildfire emergency, a shortage of firefighters to combat it, and a groundswell of support for criminal justice reform and prison abolition were all forces that coalesced to ensure passage of the bill at a time when a moral desire to ensure fuller employment access for formerly incarcerated individuals may have been insufficient to do so. The Comment also speculates about the bill’s limited positive effects in the future and posits that it may be a peak of progress—another concept from Bell—which may have positive effects in the near term but ultimately mask systemic issues of prison labor and stymie future efforts of reform or abolition. Specifically, the bill may (1) obfuscate the ongoing difficulties experienced by current and former prisoners, whether they are trained as firefighters or not, and (2) dissipate political energy and enthusiasm for future reform or abolition efforts.

The Comment concludes with recommendations for more robust approaches to resolving issues of employment for formerly incarcerated firefighters. These recommendations are made in an attempt to suggest more ambitious alternatives for future policy initiatives without disregarding the positive value that many fire camp participants derive from the program, while centering their experiences and needs in the determination of their future.