Criminal justice reform is in the air for the upcoming legislative session. For more than a decade, experts and advocates have warned of a mounting incarceration crisis that has created huge costs for taxpayers while, perversely, possibly increasing crime. For years these warnings were ignored, but the situation may have finally gotten so dire that lawmakers will pay attention. Reports from prisons leave no doubt that they are “understaffed, overcrowded and badly in need of repair.” Already, both corrections officers and inmates have paid for our neglect with serious injuries or lost lives. House Speaker Jeff Hickman recently spoke out that Oklahoma risks losing control of our prison system to the federal government if we don’t manage it more responsibly.
As we consider the best reforms to reduce the number in prison, we should not forget to look at what happens after inmates return to the streets. In numerous ways, Oklahoma continues to punish ex-felons long after they have paid their debt to society. We put up so many obstacles that it can be extremely difficult just to survive out of prison without returning to crime. With an estimated 1 in 12 Oklahomans having a felony conviction in their past, these barriers affect a substantial part of our state’s population. Here are three barriers that can block Oklahomans with a felony record from putting their lives back together:
#1: Job restrictions
We’ve previously written about Oklahoma’s numerous restrictions on employment for ex-felons. The article has attracted numerous comments and heartbreaking stories from Oklahomans. Here’s just one example:
After completion of 6 years in custody with Oklahoma Department of Corrections for a drug felony, I came face to face with this horrendous barrier to employment. I applied to many jobs I am qualified for but because of my felony I was denied employment. … Finally someone took a chance on me. … I was hired as a job coach to work with adults with developmental disabilities. The pay isn’t great but the rewards are paid directly to the heart. … In March of this year, (2013), I was given the award of excellence for my service to adults with developmental disabilities at the Governor’s Conference on Developmental Disabilities. … In this month of September I once again felt the effects of my LIFE sentence come back. The same state agency that gave me the award terminated my employment as a Job Coach due to the felony in my background. Now I am back at square one looking for employment.
His story is one of many. Oklahoma permanently bars ex-felons from taking a long list of jobs, and for many others, a state board may use a felony record as grounds for refusing to grant an occupational license. The rationale behind some of these restrictions is hard to find — Oklahoma may block anyone with a felony from working as an interior designer, architect, physical therapist, land surveyor, and many more occupations, no matter what the felony charge or how long ago it happened. Compounding the issue, Oklahoma counts as felonies charges that would be misdemeanors in almost every other state.
An even more far-reaching problem is that numerous employers will not hire anyone with a felony on their record. They weed out anyone who admits to a felony on their job application without even going as far as talking to them to understand the background and what the person has done since. That’s why several states and municipalities have enacted a “ban the box” rule, which says employers can only ask about prior convictions after making a tentative job offer. Employers can still withdraw the job offer on learning about convictions, but the rule allows workers a fair chance to make their case.
#2: Excessive fees and fines
Even as Oklahoma makes it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to find a job, we weigh them down with numerous fees and fines that leave them even more destitute and threaten them with returning to incarceration for non-payment. These harsh fees are a major contributor to Oklahoma’s incarceration crises. A 2013 Tulsa World investigation found that the percent of Tulsa jail bookings involving nonpayment of fees and fines has more than tripled in the last decade, rising to 29 percent of all jail books in July 2013.
[pullquote]They can’t write a $1,000 check… These are people that have substance abuse problems, mental health problems and now we are having to deal with them in the jail.”[/pullquote]The criminal justice system’s increasing reliance on offender fees for its funding is a national trend, but in Oklahoma the problem has been exacerbated by repeated state budget cuts that have sent court and prison officials scrambling for alternative sources of funding. In a telling symptom from last August, a Muskogee County judge wrote a letter to many of his colleagues asking them to assess a minimum $1,000 fine in all felony cases. Attorney D. Michael Haggerty II, president of the Oklahoma Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, whose clients include indigent defendants, responded, “They can’t write a $1,000 check… These are people that have substance abuse problems, mental health problems and now we are having to deal with them in the jail.”
These fees become even more destructive when ex-felons (or even people with fines overs misdemeanors) are denied drivers’ licenses until they pay off their charges. They are put in a situation where they can’t legally drive until they pay off fees, but they can’t reach a job to earn enough to pay off the fees without driving. It’s a Catch-22 that can force many ex-offenders to have no reasonable option other than breaking their parole and risking a return to prison. House Speaker Jeff Hickman recently acknowledged this problem, saying ““The Legislature deserves plenty of blame for some of these systems we’ve set up that have made it almost impossible” to stay on the right side of the law.
#3: Restrictions on basic aid
On top of being blocked from getting a job and buried in fees, numerous states prevent ex-felons from getting basic income and food aid needed to survive. Federal laws imposes a lifetime ban on anyone convicted of a drug-related felony from receiving SNAP benefits (food stamps) or TANF emergency cash assistance, but states can opt out of the ban. Oklahoma is one of the states that has opted out, for good reason. However, a bill already filed for the upcoming legislative session by Sen. Rob Standridge (R-Norman) would reimpose the ban for the TANF program.
Note that TANF already has mandatory drug screening for all recipients, and 85.5 percent of Oklahoma’s TANF recipients are children. In Oklahoma, TANF is a minuscule program that provides a small amount of cash for a limited period and requires adult recipients, all of whom have dependent children, to be employed or looking for work. By targeting those who would go through an already rigorous process to qualify for TANF, the bill would block a path for precisely those ex-offenders who are seeking to reintegrate with society.
We don’t yet know if this bill will get any traction, but it’s a disappointing sign that the “dumb on crime” approach has not disappeared at the capitol. Until lawmakers fully embrace the principle that attempts to rebuild a life after prison should be rewarded instead of blocked, Oklahoma taxpayers will keep spending more to be less safe.