Oklahoma lost the War on Drugs, and the damage is still being done
Why it failed, what has changed, and what comes next for Oklahoma convicts and their families.
The State of Oklahoma’s historically strict approach to law and order has culminated in an incarceration rate today that vastly outpaces that of the rest of the United States and all other developed countries, making it one of the most punitive places on earth. Its out-sized prisoner and convict populations are attributable in part to Oklahoma’s long, bruising, and failed war on drugs, which has now impacted generations of people.
In 2017, there were more arrests for possession of cannabis nationally than arrests for all violent crimes combined . From the turn of the century to 2010, more than eight million people were arrested for violating marijuana laws and nine out of 10 of these cases were for small amounts . Some 660,000 people were arrested in 2018 alone for violating cannabis laws, even though more than half of America’s 50 states have decriminalized or legalized it in recent years.
Worse still, the subjects of these prosecutions face deep cultural stigmatization that leads to former inmates experiencing “perpetual punishment” long after their terms are complete.
Criminal records create a cycle of former convicts returning to prison again and again after finding themselves ineligible for major categories of employment and otherwise discouraged from achieving reform after lengthy periods of incarceration, probation, or parole. “There’s an irony to that,” Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute, told the CNHI news network in December. Former convicts often can’t pay outstanding court fines and fees without having first found gainful employment, Shade said, and so find themselves back in the clutches of the criminal justice system. “It’s that cyclical ‘Catch-22’ that people find themselves caught in.”
Compounding the problem, almost one in three jobs in the United States, requires an occupational license, such as plumbers and electricians, that could be adversely affected by previous convictions. According to press accounts, over 200,000 students in the United States have lost federal financial aid eligibility because of a drug conviction.
In recent years, Oklahoma voters and state lawmakers from across the political spectrum have recognized these issues as a policy failure and are passing laws aimed at transforming the State’s approach to criminal justice.
In Oklahoma, the first reforms were led by voters at the ballot box in 2016 when certain nonviolent drug-possession laws were reclassified from felonies to misdemeanors. Then two years later in 2018, voters in Oklahoma went further yet and passed one of the most progressive medical cannabis laws in the nation by a sweeping margin.
After witnessing this historic shift in the public opinion, elected leaders last year at the statehouse in Oklahoma City answered by advancing legislation that sought to make these new reforms retroactive.
They did so in part by enabling people convicted of the same crimes that had been reclassified to take steps to expunge their criminal records. The legislation enables some 60,000 Oklahomans who have felony records for simple drug possession now considered misdemeanors to overcome years and even decades-old barriers to creating a new life after conviction. Another major result of this reform effort was the largest single commutation of criminal offenders under Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt during 2019.
Despite all of these efforts, many of the tens of thousands of newly eligible to have part or all of their criminal records expunged do not know who to turn to ask for help or aren’t aware they’re eligible for expungement, according to the institute.
While expunging one’s criminal record in Oklahoma is now possible thanks to modern reforms, the process for doing so remains cumbersome, and legal expertise is essential.
Here are the steps you’ll need to take:
- Hire a legal representative
- Pay down all court fees and fines associated with the case
- Gather your case’s history from the Oklahoma State Courts Network or On Demand Court Records (more than 70 participating courts)
- Obtain criminal history report and final court order from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation
- Pay a court filing fee and pay to serve the final expungement records
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation says there are other considerations to keep in mind about the process of expungement. The agency strongly recommends hiring a lawyer for the process and says nonexperts won’t be fully prepared for the court interactions required.
There are two types of expungements possible under state statutes. One entirely expunges your arrest record, while a second would have the final disposition of an individual case relabeled as “pled not guilty, case dismissed.”
One petition can be filed for multiple arrests in a single Oklahoma county, but individual petitions must be filed if requestors have convictions in more than one county. Fingerprints taken as a consequence of the arrest will not be destroyed, but they won’t be linked anymore to the now-sealed arrest record.
What these efforts in Oklahoma and other states are showing is that the tide has shifted. Taxpayers and lawmakers alike have grown weary of the psychic and financial costs to the public of prolonged incarceration and criminal justice initiatives that amounted to lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key.
Cannabis decriminalization and the reform of laws for simple drug possession created two populations of people, one convicted of a crime for which another is able to engage in legally. Expungement laws seek to reconcile this contradiction and for the first time in state history give Oklahomans a chance to become eligible for new opportunities that were previously off-limits.