The 2022 session brings rare opportunity for significant progress in our criminal justice system

As the state legislature begins the 2022 session, criminal justice issues should be a higher priority for Oklahoma lawmakers. This includes modernizing expungement by building a “Clean Slate” system, alleviating the burden of criminal court fines and fees, and further reducing  Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis. Even after progress, Oklahoma still ranks third in overall incarceration, with more than 21,000 people in state custody and another 26,000 under some form of supervision. While Oklahoma’s overall incarceration rate remains alarming, the demographic composition of our prison and jail populations show a significant imbalance along both racial and gender lines. For example, while Black Oklahomans represent about 7 percent of the state’s overall population, more than 1 in 4 people in Oklahoma’s prisons are Black. Despite incomplete data sets for American Indians, we see that American Indian women are incarcerated in Oklahoma at three times the rate of white women. This is especially concerning considering that Oklahoma is among the nation’s leading incarcerator of women.  

Racial-disparities-in-Oklahomas-incarceration-rate-via-Oklahoma-Policy-Institute

To address these and related issues, Oklahoma lawmakers can use this session to reduce the prison population, build on past efforts and empower individuals to lead successful, healthy lives after incarceration.

HB 3316, Oklahoma’s Clean Slate law, can knock down a major barrier to employment, housing, and education.  

Oklahoma should implement a system of automatic record clearance, ensuring those who are eligible for what’s known as an expungement actually receive one. An expungement is a legal process that allows individuals to seal old court records. This prevents the public, but not law enforcement, from having access to the information. A criminal record can prevent someone from obtaining a job, housing, and education, which lead to higher levels of unemployment and homelessness. Under the current state law, criminal arrest or conviction records can already be sealed from the public through a  paper expungement process. That said, the current system is costly, time consuming, and inefficient — less than 10 percent of those eligible actually receive an expungement.  

Under House Bill 3316, the Clean Slate system would use state records to identify eligible individuals, and then it would automatically notify the necessary parties. If eligibility is not disputed within 45 days, the system clears the record for expungement. This replaces the need for someone to hire an attorney, schedule a hearing, and appear before a judge to expunge their records. HB 3316 would not alter the eligibility requirements for expungement, only streamline the current process, immediately opening doors for an estimated 100,000 Oklahomans who are currently eligible but who may not be able to afford an attorney to access relief. Several states, including Utah, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, have recently enacted automatic expungement, joining more than 20 states with some form of automatic record clearance. Through a coalition of national partners and American Rescue Plan funds, Oklahoma can build and implement this technology with minimal expense to taxpayers. Adopting this automated process would remove a major barrier to employment, housing, and education for those with a criminal record.

Criminal fines and fees don’t just burden families. They harm courts and law enforcement, too. 

This session, lawmakers should restructure how we fund vital court services to alleviate the financial burden of criminal fines and fees in communities statewide. Right now, the majority of court funding comes from court fines and fees, and most criminal court collections are levied against the poorest Oklahomans in rural and urban communities. None of this makes these communities more safe. This model essentially turns our law enforcement officials into debt collectors to serve warrants and arrest people for failure to pay their fines and fees, which fund essential court services. A 2019 study found counties in Texas and New Mexico spent 121 times what the IRS spends to collect taxes, resulting in some places spending $1.17 for every $1 collected in criminal fines. Fines and fees make our communities less safe, as enforcement takes valuable time away from police, courts, and probation officers. Every minute police spend attempting to collect fines and fees is time not spent on public safety. Law enforcement and prosecutors should not be incentivized to make more arrests and prosecute more people in order to meet the ever-increasing monetary needs of their departments.        

Lawmakers should remove excessive fees and provide relief for struggling families trying to manage this court debt. Senate Bill 1458 proposes repealing fees that fund executive branch agencies unrelated to courts. SB 1532 would clearly empower judges to waive fines and fees and to provide debt forgiveness for defendants who’ve made consistent payments. Lawmakers must also work to repeal youth fines and fees this legislative session, finally ending the practice of saddling Oklahoma children with the persistent weight of criminal court debt. This debt traps children in the criminal court system while leading to lifelong negative consequences in overall well-being.     

Lawmakers should focus on solving Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis while investing in strategies that actually reduce crime  

Recent history has shown that Oklahoma voters want to see our state make more investments in treatment and restoration, rather than incarceration, to make our communities stronger and safer. The proposed legislation mentioned here reflects that commitment to safely modernizing our justice system. We can also include other pieces of legislation, like HB 3297 that would finally enact the will of the people by fully funding SQ 781 and SB 1646 that modernizes Oklahoma’s outdated criminal code. This session represents a rare opportunity for lawmakers to make significant progress in creating genuine public safety that leads to thriving, safe communities. In every case, these solutions are focused on solving Oklahoma’s incarceration crisis, not worsening it.  

[Source: Oklahoma Policy Institute and Open Justice Oklahoma analysis from Oklahoma Department of Corrections data]

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Gateley joined Oklahoma Policy Institute in August 2021 as the Criminal Justice Policy Analyst. Raised in Oklahoma, David received his B.A. in Political Science from the University of Oklahoma. After graduation, he taught biology at Edmond North High School before earning his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. During law school, he wrote on topics such as the abolition of cash bail and the effectiveness of restorative justice. He was also an avid moot court competitor, receiving recognition in the national Order of the Barristers. Most recently, David worked as a licensed legal intern in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. David is passionate about reforming the criminal justice system towards less punitive principles of justice and away from mass incarceration. In his free time, David enjoys trying new restaurants, and reading science fiction novels. He lives in Oklahoma City.

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