Every sentence is a life sentence: 3 barriers to life after prison

Photo by Matteo Parrini.

Photo by Matteo Parrini.

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.

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.”

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.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from January 2011 to June 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism. Gene also serves on the board of the Oklahoma Sustainability Network, is a trustee of the Oklahoma Foundation for Excellence, is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, and has chaired the communications advisory committee for the State Priorities Partnership, a nationwide network of state fiscal policy think tanks. He lives in Tulsa with his wife Kara Joy McKee, who is a Tulsa City Councilor.

8 thoughts on “Every sentence is a life sentence: 3 barriers to life after prison

  1. Excellent overview. Just a couple of additional points. A major reason why the state has seen a growth in “DA diversion” programs wherein the prosecutor’s office assumes responsibility for an accused (not convicted) offender for a period of time in lieu of filing criminal charges is that DA offices, particularly those unable now to collect the same revenue as before from their “hot check” programs (dadgum debit cards!!!), see the “diversion” (supervised by an assistant DA undoubtedly with massive experience and training in the field) as a way to charge fees to replace the lost dollars from those older programs and lower appropriations. Ironically, many of the types of offenders (burglars, drug offenders, theives) who once were proclaimed rapists and murderers except “nobody was home,” have apparently dumbed down enough now to be eligible for non-incarceration when the DA offices have funding needs.

    The other point to add is that, not only are reformed offenders kept out of professions in which they can contribute, you will also never see them included in the panels created to discuss what would be effective in dealing with offenders. Go back and look at the Governor’s recently announced panel due to report on reforms about the time she’s running for Senate. (Despite the lament of the recent Oklahoman editorial linked to here yesterday, prosecutors will be overly represented both by the AG’s office and in the audience of any panel meetings, rest assured.) Look at the past OK Sentencing Commission or any OK criminal justice coordinating council.

    It’s not unique to OK. The policy bodies created to determine why crime occurs and what government actions would be most effective in limiting if not stopping it NEVER include anyone who had committed a crime and stopped. They are NEVER invited to the audience, they are NEVER given a hearing. Everyone Cliff Clavin with a theory or gripe about why crime happens and how to stop it gets two cents worth, and all our punishments are based on what would stop the people recommending or passing the policies (which oddly ends up corresponding poorly with the lived experience of most actual offenders, not to mention those who have successfully desisted). It’s like creating groups to put together Best Practice recipes, groups filled with diners and landlords and pundits, but without any cooks. It’s not like OK doesn’t have agencies that regularly includes those who would know the lives being addressed (see DMHSAS, Oklahoma). But somehow it would be “giving in” and being “soft on crime” again to actually talk to and heed those who knew crime and knew out to get out . . . and knew why the punishments passed by middle- to upper-middle class legislators somehow just don’t get the job done, time after time after time. If one were skepical, one might conclude that the bodies created to “deal with” crime and public safety reform had other motives and goals. If one were more forgiving, one might conclude that those bodies really just use up air better used elsewhere and the people who put them together gather annually at the Clavin/Bodine Family Reunion.

  2. Is there any way I can get this sent as a press release or get permission to reprint this on EastWord’s website? I won’t do this without permission, but I would LOVE to post this with all pertinent links, of course.

    Thank you!

    Respectfully,

    Shawn Garza
    Publisher
    EastWord News

  3. Back in the 1990s, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enacted “One Strike and You’re Out” rules that guide who and who may not be eligible for housing assistance. Although HUD now allows some flexibility in the way that rental assistance providers interpret the ‘One-Strike’ rule, it remains a significant barrier to re-entry for many. For example, families cannot be reunited by DHS unless the parent has a stable place to live so TANF benefits aren’t even on the table for many because they cannot regain custody of their children without housing. Barriers to employment are also real, but in most cases you need an address just to make application. If I had to select three barriers, housing would definitely be on the list.

  4. One point about NON VIOLENT FELONY’S. There is a process to Expunge, in Oklahoma Law. To have a felony conviction Expunged, would mean the ex-felon would have the right to answer “No” to the question about felony convictions, on a job application. Understand, this law states, that it is available only after 10 years and with no additional charges having been file against the person, since the original conviction.

    It seems to be a complicated process and would of course require an attorney.

    My son has been 10+ years since a drug related, non-violent felony conviction.
    He has two problems.
    1. When he fills out a job application, he always answers yes to the felony question
    2. The Department of Public Safety, with their benevolent wisdom, suspended his drivers license, until he spends about $3,000 with them to get it back. This is policy at the DPS with every drug related conviction. The real crux to this matter, which I believe you missed in your article, is; a young man spends his time in prison, being duly punished under the law. When he is release, he is further punished by the DPS with the drivers license suspension hanging over his head. Where was it decided that it not “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”, to serve your time and when you get out, there is another State agency flexing their muscle, strictly for money. Money these people do not have and cannot get, because they cannot drive. The problem I really have with this is; the courts have dealt with the conviction and punishment as prescribed by law. This used to mean, you serve your time and you are good to go. Where does our legislature get their un-reasoned reasoning? I wish I had a lot of money, but I don’t. My son have spent 10+ miserable years, mostly depressed, that he spent his time in prison, admitted to his guilt and is still being punished 10 years later. Some would indeed call this “Cruel and Unusual Punishment”.

    Therefore, I propose:
    1. After a period of time a person’s Driver’s License should be reinstated.
    2. If the person had to use a Public Defender during his original conviction, then a court appointed Public Defender should represent this person in a Hearing to Expunge.

  5. I agree that you can get a lot of fees from being in prison. I have a friend who recently received a life sentence. He told me he will look for a lawyer he can consult.

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