The deregistration process in Oklahoma is expensive and time consuming. The legislator could change that.

Hundreds of people lined up outside the Greater Oklahoma City Urban League last August in 90-degree heat, hoping for a fresh start.

The advocacy organization was hosting a delisting fair aimed at providing resources and information to those convicted of non-violent felonies and misdemeanors. Expungement can help people arrested or convicted of aging pass background checks and secure stable housing and employment. Most don’t take advantage of the relief it offers. The Oklahoma Policy Institute estimates that 93.5% of records eligible for expungement remain unsealed.

Jabar Shumate

According to proponents of criminal justice reform, the biggest barrier to expungement is cost. Although it is possible to apply for expungement without a lawyer, the application process is complex and usually takes months. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation says applicants will be held to the same standard as a legal professional and “strongly suggests” they hire an attorney.

“It’s impossible to do it on your own,” said Jabar Shumate, a former state legislator and Urban League vice president of urban community and social justice. “You can only get expunged by hiring a lawyer which would probably cost you – if you had a very small case – around $1,500. Most cases could take up to $5,000 just because of the time involved, coordinating all the agencies, and getting all the approvals.

The state legislature is considering a solution that would leverage technology to make radiation more accessible. The proposal, House Bill 3316 by Rep. Nicole Miller, R-Edmond, would authorize the state to create a computer algorithm identifying cases eligible for expungement and automatically initiating the process of clearing records.

The bill was unanimously approved by the House Penal and Corrections Committee last month and is eligible for a full House vote.

Nicole Miller

“I believe government itself should not be in the business of erecting barriers that prevent people from living their lives and being productive members of society,” Miller said in an interim study of August on the delisting reform. Miller declined a request for an interview, saying she was still finalizing the wording of the bill.

The push for disbarment reform comes as people with criminal records struggle to find steady employment despite a nationwide labor shortage. In some cases, they may be removed from consideration after disclosing their record or fired after the offense appears on a background check.

“I had a graduate in my office last week who was fired because the background showed a deferred probation sentence, which is not a conviction,” said Rachel Delcour, director of criminal justice for the Women program. in Recovery in Tulsa. “She’s going to be disbarred this year, but she’s not eligible yet, so they let her go.”

Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Utah have passed automatic record deletion legislation, also known as Clean Slate laws. The legislation received strong bipartisan support in all three states, particularly in Utah, where lawmakers voted unanimously in 2019 to allow automatic expungement of many low-level offenses.

The automatic debarment legislation is generally received positively, said Jesse Kelley, national campaign manager for the Washington, DC-based Clean Slate Initiative.

Jesse Kelly

The central point of contention among legislators is often how far reform should go. For example, half the legislature may believe that non-conviction arrests and misdemeanors should be automatically expunged, but draw the line at expunging criminal offenses.

Oklahoma’s proposal, which would not change eligibility for delisting but simply automate the process, has yet to receive significant opposition. A cross section of political and advocacy groups statewide, including the Oklahoma Conservative Public Affairs Council, Right on Crime, and Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, have expressed support for Bill 3316. .

“Republicans and Democrats can all agree that people who are no longer a threat to society, who have not committed any sort of violation of public safety for a number of years, deserve to live full lives. “, Kelley said.

Build an automatic erasing system

A representative from Oklahoma Legal Aid Services provides information to a participant at the Greater Oklahoma City Urban League delisting fair on Aug. 21, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Urban League)

If the legislature approves House Bill 3316, Oklahoma could begin creating its automatic erasure system by the end of the year. It would probably take at least a year to build the necessary technological infrastructure.

“You need to develop software that will communicate across multiple systems in multiple counties,” Kelley said. “What’s great is that the Clean Slate Initiative is working with another group, Code for America, which will work with state agencies and advise them on how they can successfully adapt their software to implement an automatic invoice.”

One of the benefits of Oklahoma’s clean slate is that there’s no break in automation from start to finish of the write-off, Kelley said. Arresting and prosecuting agencies would be notified of the pending expungements and given 45 days to object. If no objections are made, the names will be forwarded to a judge for final approval. Records would be removed from public inspection but would remain accessible to law enforcement.

Damion Shade

Damion Shade, justice and economic mobility project manager for the Oklahoma Policy Institute, estimates the state could begin automatically expunging records by 2024 if the legislation passes this session. State officials could use US bailout dollars to fund the creation and maintenance of the system through 2026 at an estimated cost of $3 million to $5 million, Shade said.

“Of course, there will always be the cost of maintaining this system in the future,” Shade said. “But law enforcement and judicial agencies involved in this case will have to create new data systems anyway, because their technology is very old.”

The overall economic benefit of clean slate legislation far outweighs the cost of maintaining the system, proponents say, because more people are able to get better-paying jobs. A study by the University of Michigan revealed that this state discharge recipients were 22% more likely to be employed and earned 11% more one year after their records were sealed.

Obstacles may persist

For people who have already been convicted or arrested, expungement is an important step in moving forward in life. But it’s not always a catch-all.

Third-party background check websites can reveal criminal records sealed for months. A Google search can turn up an old news article about an arrest – even if it never resulted in a conviction – long after the fact.

A handful of states are reviewing their contracts with third-party background check providers and stipulating that data must be kept up to date, Kelley said. The process is far from perfect.

“In a perfect world, it would be quickly reflected that this disc is no longer usable,” she said. “But human error and human influence can derail the perfection we seek in technology.”

The third-party issue may not be as urgent in Oklahoma, Shade said, because most employers in the state use background check providers that pull records from the state’s court network. from Oklahoma and other open data sources. OSCN is funded by court fines and updated daily.

“As we modernize and build these systems, we may affect the vast majority of education, housing and job searches,” he said.

A handful of media organizations allow people to request that a news article documenting a previous arrest or conviction be taken down. In 2018 the Cleveland Plain Dealership released a short web form that asks for a name, a story to take down, and an explanation of why. The Boston Globe and Atlanta Journal-Constitution followed suit. As a general rule, articles about public figures or violent incidents will not be deleted.

“It always comes back, is it better? Is the value of removing it higher for the people who ask for it than the value for society of maintaining it? And almost always, the value is greater for the person making the request,” Chris Quinn, editor of Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, told NPR last year.

who benefits

Delcour, with the Women in Recovery program, has helped dozens of women navigate the delisting process.

The organization has built relationships with judges and public defenders in Tulsa, Creek and Rogers counties and generally has no problem scheduling an expungement hearing. Those who receive a disbarment through Women in Recovery could save a few thousand dollars in legal fees, but the long-term social and economic impact is even greater, Delcour said.

“When someone has a conviction on their record or even a deferred sentence, those things are huge barriers to getting a job that really pays enough to live on or a safe place to live that requires a background check.” , she said. “We want to save people money, but more than that, I want people to get better jobs and better housing and to remove some of those barriers.”

A significant benefit of Bill 3316, Delcour said, is that it would apply to all state residents, regardless of where they were convicted and what resources are available to them.

“We have staff here who are going to help our women try to apply for these benefits,” she said. “But not everyone is in a program like ours.”

With the help of pro bono attorneys, Shumate said the Urban League processes hundreds of disbarment requests, a process that typically takes at least six months. He hopes that the organization will soon no longer have to carry such a heavy burden.

“It’s been an overwhelming process because of the way things are structured in this state,” Shumate said. “I can guarantee you that once this bill passes, more agencies that help those involved in justice will be able to step in and help people because it’s more feasible.”

Keaton Ross is a Report for America staff member who covers prison conditions and criminal justice issues for Oklahoma Watch. Contact him at (405) 831-9753 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @_KeatonRoss

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