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Point of View: Life after prison in Oklahoma

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With each criminal conviction, the state of Oklahoma matter-of-factly tells the defendants how long they will spend behind bars. Hidden in the fine-print is a long list of additional penalties attached to these convictions.

Only upon leaving prison and while attempting to rebuild their lives do offenders experience how these non-prison “collateral consequences” limit or deny their basic rights to housing, food stamps, education, voting, employment, child custody and much more.

A 2018 study conducted by the Prison Policy Initiative found that “formally incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27 percent — higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression…[and]…Exclusionary policies and practices are responsible for these market inequities.”

The study concludes: “A prison sentence should not be a perpetual punishment. … States should implement automation record expungement procedures and reform their licensing practices so as to eliminate the automatic rejection of people with felony convictions.”

“The stigma of incarceration and disconnection from the workforce,” according to a Council of State Governments report, “are among the challenges people face when trying to find a job after release from prison or jail. People who have been incarcerated earn 40 percent less annually than they had earned prior to incarceration.”

Researchers at the Council of State Governments have prepared a list of 1,189 “collateral consequences” imbedded in Oklahoma statutes and regulations — waiting to snare persons convicted of a crime. Some consequences kick in automatically. Others are applied on a case-by-case basis. Some have a set duration, others are indefinite.

Here are examples of how Oklahoma’s post-prison penalties make the prison-to-society transition more difficult for ex-offenders.

Employment

“Ineligible to serve as truck driver training instructor.” A mandatory penalty with various durations for conviction of any felony, controlled substances offenses and motor vehicle offenses.

“Ineligible to serve as contract school employee.” A mandatory penalty with a varying duration for conviction of any felony and crimes of violence.

“Ineligible to be employed by a private prison contractor.” A mandatory penalty with an indefinite duration for a felony conviction.

Education/Public Assistance

“Ineligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families parental care.” A discretionary penalty with an indefinite duration for conviction of a felony or misdemeanor.

“Bar student from university/college campus.” A discretionary penalty with an indefinite duration for conviction of controlled substances offenses and crimes of violence.

“Forfeit right to education (conviction of violent act).” A discretionary penalty for conviction of crimes of moral turpitude; crimes involving fraud, dishonesty, misrepresentation or money-laundering; crimes of violence, sex offenses and weapons offenses.

Occupational Licenses

Because “One out of five working Americans needs a license to work while one in three American adults has a criminal record,” the Institute for Justice encourages state lawmakers to repeal needless licenses, scale back anti-competitive licensing laws and strengthen the rights of people with a criminal record to gain meaningful employment.

To do so, the Institute has prepared, for state adoption, a model legislation titled, “Collateral Consequences in Occupational Licensing Act.” To date, at least 18 states, including Oklahoma, have reformed their occupational licensing laws to reduce entry barriers for those with a criminal record.

According to the Collateral Consequences Resource Center’s Restoration of Rights Project, a nonprofit organization that tracks legal restrictions on people with a criminal record, Oklahoma has taken steps to remove employment barriers for ex-offenders. They include:

• No public or private employer may ask about or consider a sealed conviction.

• Most specialized licensing boards may not deny/revoke license based on conviction unless there is a substantial relationship or threat to public safety.

• By executive order, public employers may not ask about a criminal history on their employment applications, but such questions may be asked during the interview process.

When state legislatures erect legal barriers that make life after prison difficult, if not impossible, they are setting people with a criminal record up for failure — and a trip back to prison. Ex-offenders have a personal responsibility to make the lifestyle changes needed to successfully re-enter society. Oklahoma legislators also have a responsibility to give wrong-doers the opportunity to make these changes and to become productive, law-abiding citizens.

Fraser writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization. Write him at: fraserr@erols.com.

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