Ray Carter | August 31, 2021
Expungement reform touted as way to reduce crime
If the Oklahoma government allows automatic expungement of certain lower-level criminal convictions, it will help people who have served their sentences to again become productive members of society and make them less likely to reoffend, a panel of experts told state lawmakers during an interim study.
“Research suggests that vacating records actually contributes to public safety,” said Jesse Kelley, national campaign manager for the Clean Slate Initiative. “A clean slate will reduce the likelihood of recidivism and thus promote it.”
She cited research showing that the recidivism rate for people who have their records expunged is “so low that after a period of time they actually pose a lower crime risk than the general population as a whole.”
Nationwide, between 70 million and 100 million people—almost one in three Americans—have some form of criminal record, and up to half of children have at least one parent who has been convicted of a crime.
Ryan Haynie, criminal justice reform fellow for the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, said expungement, which seals records of a criminal conviction from public view, can open many doors for those previously convicted of crimes.
“Expungements can be life-changing in areas of employment, education, military service, licensing, travel, housing, credit and lending, as well as things as simple as volunteering at your child’s school,” Haynie said.
He noted that nine of 10 employers rely on criminal background checks during the hiring process and those with prior criminal convictions are up to 50 percent less likely to receive a callback. Within a year of expungement, data shows an individual is 11 percent more likely to be employed and earns 22 percent more than prior to expungement.
Four out of five landlords and three out of five colleges also use criminal background checks during the application process.
When individuals are unable to obtain employment after release from prison, the chances significantly increase that they will again resort to crime, officials said.
“There is really no single better indicator for whether or not someone will be able to succeed after involvement with the criminal justice system than employment,” said Damion Shade, criminal justice policy analyst for the Oklahoma Policy Institute.
Even with expungement, Haynie noted that records are simply sealed, not destroyed, for at least 10 years and law enforcement officials can access those records if an individual reoffends. The expungement process does not seal actions taken by licensing entities against individuals whose crime was tied to their profession.
Those convicted of the most serious crimes, such as murder and rape, would not be eligible to have those records expunged under any reform measures endorsed by advocates.
Brett Tolman, executive director for Right on Crime, is a former prosecutor from Utah who pursued that career in part because his older sister was kidnapped and raped while he was a child. One of the last cases he handled was the prosecution of the man who kidnapped 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart from her home in Salt Lake City.
Although he is proud of the work he did as a prosecutor, Tolman told lawmakers his experience also showed him the system’s flaws.
“We need to fix broken aspects of the criminal justice system, and we need to do so while still being mindful of victims like my sister and Elizabeth and the impact in the community,” Tolman said.
While individuals can currently file a petition with the court to have a criminal record expunged, officials noted that process requires hiring a lawyer and can cost between $1,500 and $5,000 a case—and sometimes much more.
That is beyond the ability of most people to afford after incarceration, particularly when they cannot obtain gainful employment, officials said.
It’s estimated only about 6 percent of individuals eligible for expungement via the petition process do so, in part due to cost.
“These are people who most of the time can’t keep up with their fees and their fines from their court case,” Tolman said.
“There are people in there with fines and fees that are more than what my student-loan debt is,” said Marilyn Davidson, the Oklahoma state director for Right on Crime. “At least with my student-loan debt, I’m getting a degree I can hang on my wall. These people are getting years of this stress of ‘how do I pay this?’ Some of them are only paying $5 a month on a $60,000 debt. They’re never going to get out of that. They’re going to die with that debt.”
Erin Brewer and her husband, owners of the former Red Pin Bowling and Diner in Oklahoma City’s Bricktown district, became a “second chance” employer, although that wasn’t their intent when the business first opened.
Because the business was located near a correctional halfway house, Brewer said Red Pin received many job applications from individuals newly released from prison. At first, Brewer said she was hesitant to hire those individuals, but eventually she and her husband learned that “we were totally wrong in any of our hesitancy or prejudice or ill-conceived ideas of what those employees might be like.”
“What we learned was that there was a ready and able workforce that was capable and reliable and hardworking and honest—and honestly, sometimes better than my traditional workforce pool, and just as much of a gamble, to be honest, as any other employee who came to me off the street,” Brewer said.
During the years she and her husband operated Red Pin, Brewer said that at any given time 10 percent to 30 percent of their employees were individuals with prior convictions. Of roughly 200 such employees hired during the life of the business, Brewer said she had to fire only two.
Officials said state government could use federal “American Rescue Plan Act” funds, which were provided to states as COVID-bailout funds, to pay for a new system that will automatically expunge many lower-tier convictions based on predetermined criteria.
Officials noted that it will not create any significant ongoing expense for the state once the federal funds are depleted.
Curtis Shelton, policy research fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, noted the cost of an automatic-expungement system would be about $3 million to $5 million.
“Most of these costs are going to be one-time funding,” Curtis said. “They’re going to be building out the infrastructure for this, coding for the system to automatically process these things. It’s not going to be a recurring cost for the most part. There might be some upkeep here and there, but by and large it’s going to be a one-time funding thing, which if you’re going to take federal money, that’s obviously the first thing you want to look at to keep costs minimized for Oklahoma taxpayers.”
State Rep. Nicole Miller, the Edmond Republican who requested the study, urged her fellow lawmakers to join her in supporting expungement reform.
“I believe that government itself should not be in the business of erecting barriers to people getting on with their lives and being productive members of society,” Miller said. “And the one thing that I believe more than anything else is that there’s got to be another way.”
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.