Ethan Rex is an OK Policy intern. He is a sociology senior at the University of Tulsa and a research assistant with Women in Recovery, an alternative to incarceration for eligible women convicted of non-violent, drug-related offenses
If a problem related to mass incarceration can be found anywhere, it’s probably especially bad in Oklahoma. This state is second only to Louisiana in overall incarceration rates (1,310 per 100,000 people). The vast majority of these imprisoned Oklahomans will eventually be released back to the streets, and that means it is especially important for our state to ensure those leaving prison are able to reenter society.
Unfortunately, the recently incarcerated face substantial barriers to successfully rejoining society. Even though employment has been shown to significantly reduce the likelihood that a former inmate will fall back into crime, it is exceedingly difficult for ex-prisoners to find a job. In fact, it is estimated that the unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated people after one year may be as high as 60 percent.
A common barrier to employment is the inability to drive legally. Many who leave prison with a suspended, revoked, or even expired license find reinstatement a challenging task, because they can be required to pay off all outstanding fines and fees before their license may be reinstated. For the recently incarcerated, who often face a staggering amount of fines and fees, paying these off can seem impossible. And in a state where public transportation is underdeveloped, this means that Oklahomans without a license find themselves unable to get to a grocery store, a child care provider, or a job interview. Or if they do drive without a license, they risk incurring even more fines or being sent to jail.
Oklahoma has attempted to address this problem with its provisional driver’s license program, which was established by the Legislature in 2013. Provisional driver’s licenses, also called “hardship licenses,” permit individuals with revoked or suspended licenses to drive in certain circumstances. In Oklahoma, this includes driving between home, a place of employment or potential employment, a day care provider, a place of worship, a court ordered treatment program, and an education program. According to statute, eligibility is determined through an application to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety, a proof of liability insurance, and a $25 fee for the license itself. Applicants are also required to make a minimum monthly payment of $25 toward any outstanding fees. These provisional licenses last only six months, but they can be renewed indefinitely if the applicant is still eligible.
[pullquote]”In a state where public transportation is underdeveloped, this means that Oklahomans without a license find themselves unable to get to a grocery store, a child care provider, or a job interview. Or if they do drive without a license, they risk being sent back to prison for violating their parole.”[/pullquote]
Variations of this policy can be found in nearby states as well. Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas all have similar policies that allow for limited driving with a revoked or suspended license. Provisional driver’s license policies seem to be implemented well in the states that do have them. For example, Arkansas provided 1,514 provisional driver’s licenses in 2015 for a variety of suspensions, from drug convictions to habitual traffic violations, according to Anita Boatman, the Assistant Administrator of Arkansas Driver Services. Boatman said hearing summaries are conducted and restricted permits are issued immediately after request in Arkansas. Because obtaining transportation may be the first necessary step to getting a keeping a job, an efficient, speedy process to get a provisional license is especially important.
Given the importance of this program, it is surprising to see that Oklahoma does not currently implement its provisional driver’s license policy well. In the two years Oklahoma has had this program, the Oklahoma DPS has only enrolled 895 individuals, according to the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety’s Director of Driver Compliance Doug Young. That’s well below the number of licenses Arkansas has provided in a state with a much lower population and incarceration rate.
This might be due to the limited number of locations that provide provisional driver’s licenses. Young said only eight offices across Oklahoma hear cases and issue provisional driver’s licenses. The Woodward office, which is only open on Fridays, is the only office for the panhandle and most of western Oklahoma. People who cannot legally drive cannot realistically be expected to be able to reach these offices.
Another provision of Oklahoma’s provisional driver’s license program prevents it from being effective policy. While not required under the law, the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety has established rules that applicants for a provisional license must first pay off all outstanding court fines and fees before they may apply for a provisional driver’s license. This provision cripples the provisional driver’s license program as an effective means of reentry for many recently incarcerated individuals.
HB 2474 by Representative Pam Peterson and Senator AJ Griffin and SB 1503 by Sen. Kay Floyd and Rep. Pam Peterson would allow courts to order the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety to waive the fines and fees requirement for an otherwise eligible applicant. Given that Oklahoma saw a 17.4 percent increase in prisoner releases from 2013 to 2014, this reform will ensure the effectiveness of the provisional driver’s license program for the recently incarcerated. HB 2474 was approved unanimously by the House and has been sent over to the Senate, while SB 1503 was approved unanimously in the Senate. Lawmakers should approve this reform to ensure that the provisional driver’s license program is implemented as it was intended. By approving this bill as well as reforms to remove occupational licensing restrictions and eliminate the “felony box” on job applications, Oklahoma can make it much easier for ex-prisoners to become contributing taxpayers and put their past mistakes behind them.