The first 13 years of Veronica Moran-Aguilar’s life were full of instability. There were drugs and gangs in the family, and they moved constantly between Madera in the Central Valley of California, and Los Angeles.
“The gang mentality was instilled in us and it was kind of hard (to separate from it),” she said. “I always saw it as a normal lifestyle.”
After settling in the Central Valley, Moran-Aguilar — the youngest of three children — started to rebel and run away. And soon after, she landed behind bars.
“At the age of 15, I committed my main crime that got me incarcerated; attempted carjacking with assault with great bodily injury,” Moran-Aguilar says.
She and two other girls wanted to get out of town and head to Los Angeles to meet up with some friends. Without a means of travel, they conspired to do a carjacking. They got a ride from a guy and ended up stabbing him several times. He survived.
After committing the crime, they got scared and ran to a friend’s house, where they were quickly found and arrested by police.
It was Moran-Aguilar’s second strike. Her parents had previously pressed charges against her for taking their car without permission, and she was already on probation.
Moran-Aguilar was tried as an adult and was sentenced to nearly seven years in prison, but her lawyer argued that she should be placed instead in youth authority.
“I grew up in there,” says Moran-Aguilar, who completed high school and college credits behind bars.
In the last two years of her incarceration she was also part of a fire crew, heading out to fight forest fires. She liked that job. It kept her busy and in shape, and instilled her with discipline and dedication.
She would have liked to pursue a firefighting career upon her release right before her 22nd birthday, but her felony conviction prevented her from doing so.
New Opportunities for Former Inmates
But starting on Friday, Jan, 1, Moran-Aguilar and others in her situation will be able to follow this path thanks to AB 2147.
The new law proposed by Assemblymember Eloise Reyes (D-San Bernardino) provides an expedited expungement process for formerly incarcerated individuals who have successfully participated in fire suppression activities. California is the first state in the nation to provide this type of relief to the formerly incarcerated that served as inmate firefighters.
“Signing AB 2147 into law is about giving second chances,” Reyes said.
“To correct is to right a wrong; to rehabilitate is to restore. Rehabilitation without strategies to ensure the formerly incarcerated have a career, is a pathway to recidivism. We must get serious about providing pathways for those who show the determination and commitment to turn their lives around,” she continued.
Under AB 2147, a person who participates as part of a state or county fire camp would be eligible to apply for expungement upon release from custody. If the expungement is approved, the applicant can pursue various career pathways, including those that require a state license.
The law excludes certain crimes, such as murder and rape.
In an average year, the Conservation Camp Program provides approximately three million person-hours responding to fires and other emergencies and seven million person-hours in community service projects, saving California taxpayers approximately $100 million annually.
Increased Minimum Wages
AB 2147 is one of a number of new state laws that take effect in 2021.
Another measure will raise the minimum wage to $14 per hour for companies with 26 or more employees, and $13 per hour for those firms with fewer than 25.
The increase is part of the gradual climb to $15 per hour by January 1, 2023.
Carlos, a part-time worker at a Vons supermarket in Los Angeles (and who asked not use his last name), won’t receive a raise because his pay is already at $15 per hour.
He added that every month or so full-time workers receive $200 and part-time workers get $150 as “hazard pay” for continuing to work during the pandemic.
“But that depends on how many hours you work that week,” he said.
COVID-19 Notices to Employees
On Dec. 21, county public health officials reported there were 490 businesses under investigation for coronavirus outbreaks compared to 173 in November.
Those businesses included grocery stores, banks, pharmacies and hardware stores, which have been deemed essential during the pandemic and remain open.
Starting with the new year, AB 685 will require California employers to notify workers and union representatives if COVID-19 exposure has occurred in the workplace within one day of learning about a potentially infected person. An employer may also be required to notify the local public health agency.
The law is meant to protect employees, many of whom have complained their employers have been slow or have not notified them previously about potential contact with infected colleagues.
“Too many employers have refused to properly notify workers when COVID-19 exposures and outbreaks occur, leading to countless worker illnesses and even fatalities,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.
“AB 685, by requiring such notification, will allow workers, their unions, and local public health officials to keep employees and the public safe and is a critically important tool for lessening the spread of this horrible virus.”
Some other new laws for 2021 include:
— Expanded Family Leave Time. Until now, companies with 50 or more workers were required to offer 12 weeks of family leave. A new law going into effect January 1st expands this benefit to firms with five or more employees.
— Protection for Good Samaritans. It’s against the law to leave a child under 6-years-old in a car unattended. Still, an average of 40 children die from heatstroke in the United States every year after being left in a car.
AB 2717 provides immunity from civil or criminal liability for damage to cars and trucks when someone rescues a child trapped in a vehicle. However, the person must prove they called 9-1-1, that the car was locked and the child was in imminent danger.
“This new law will help inspire good samaritans to take action without hesitation to save a child,” said Auto Club Traffic Safety and Community Programs Manager Anita Lorz Villagrana.
— New Punishments for Texting and Driving. California already prohibits people from holding a cell phone in their hand while driving, whether they’re talking or texting, and now there’s another reason not to do it. Starting in July 2021, two convictions within 36 months for these violations will add a point to your driving record, meaning your insurance will go up.
— Juvenile Criminal Justice Reforms. AB 901 prevents kids who are acting out in school from being referred to probation programs or becoming a ward of the court. Instead, they will be referred to community support services. And starting in July 2021, California will begin closing juvenile prisons.
— Parolees Can Vote. Proposition 17, approved by voters in the November election, will allows individuals on parole to vote.