Last Wednesday, Chris Linder was sworn into office as mayor of Pawnee, but he may not be allowed to serve. In 2000, Linder was convicted of a felony in Arizona for his role in a drug deal and gun battle. He served five years in prison and three years of probation.
After completing his sentence two years ago, Linder moved to Pawnee with his wife. He bought a local restaurant, volunteered with the Chamber of Commerce and as a baseball coach, and joined the First Baptist Church. He was elected mayor in April, beating out the incumbent and another former mayor. The felony became public during the campaign, but a plurality of voters believed he was the right person to lead the city anyway.
What they didn’t know was that Oklahoma law prohibits anyone convicted of a felony from holding a public office for 15 years after their sentence is completed. Linder applied for a pardon after learning about the law, but Arizona turned him down.
The problem is not unique to public officials. Oklahoma law puts up barriers to ex-felons pursuing a long list of professions, even when the job has no connection to their crime. Professions requiring a state license in Oklahoma include cosmetologists, funeral directors, athletic trainers, pawnbrokers, and marital and family therapists, among others. For all of these, a state-appointed board can deny a license to anyone with a felony conviction, regardless of what their crime was or how long ago it was committed.
Senator Harry Coates (R-Seminole) sponsored a bill last year that would have changed the restriction to only apply if the crime “substantially relates to the practice” of the profession or poses a reasonable threat to public safety. It was initially approved in both the House and Senate but in the end not taken up by the House Conference Committee.
Even for jobs not restricted by the state, the situation is little better. An investigation by the National Employment Law Project found numerous companies applying blanket exclusions against workers with a criminal history.
Oklahomans are especially affected since our state has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, and 8.5 percent of all Oklahomans have a felony conviction. Rev. Tony Zahn, executive director of the The Education and Employment Ministry (TEEM), said the need for jobs among ex-felons is so great that even felon-friendly employers “don’t necessarily like to be included on a felon-friendly list,” because they will be inundated with applicants.
This is counterproductive for several reasons. First, if a person commits a crime and completes their full sentence, we should want them to find a way to support themselves and rejoin society. They will be less likely to re-offend and more able to contribute their talents to the economy. Just as it is undemocratic to not allow the voters of Pawnee their choice for mayor, it is contrary to free markets to prevent a qualified person who is not a threat to public safety from taking a job.
It is also counter to a rational justice system, where punishments should fit the crime. A blanket prohibition makes no distinction between someone sentenced to three years or thirty. As Julie DelCour wrote in The Tulsa World, “is it fair to exclude an applicant from being hired to work, say, the airline ticket counter because he or she was convicted of shoplifting at 18?”
We made good progress this year with some initial corrections reforms, and House Speaker Kris Steele says that “this is only the first step.” As we consider those next steps, giving ex-felons a fair chance at decent jobs should be high on the list.