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What does a criminal record mean for job applications in Oklahoma?

July 13, 2020 by G.W. Schulz

“Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”

For decades, this question was a near-universal feature of U.S. job applications. Employers came to widely depend on the question for screening applicants, often relying only on the existence of a criminal past rather than the applicant’s knowledge, skill, and experience, to make a hiring determination.

Critics of this question have argued that if offenders seeking employment had a chance to prove themselves beyond the initial application, they’d have a fairer shot to explain their past during interviews or following an offer. At that stage, the conviction would still surface during a standard background check unless the individual had taken the additional step of seeking an expungement of their record.

A criminal past can result in significant barriers to gun ownership, voting, running for office, obtaining college and small-business loans, and gaining access to certain types of occupational licenses. These barriers often have the opposite of their intended effect, damaging both the lives of former offenders and American society. Many states, including Oklahoma, are implementing criminal justice reforms to combat the negative impact of a criminal record.

Expungement in Oklahoma Gives More Options

Oklahoma has recognized that such obstacles promote offenders circling back into the corrections system after failing to gain re-entry into society. One in three Americans has a criminal record and without intervention, over two-thirds of people released from prison will be arrested again in three years. Some 60,000 people in Oklahoma are shadowed by past felony criminal records for simple drug possession, which voters have determined should now be charged as a misdemeanor.

Over 150 cities and counties and three-dozen states – including Oklahoma – have been persuaded to stop asking about criminal history on government job applications. Oklahoma is not yet one of the 13 states that have gone one step further by requiring private employers to also remove such questions from their job applications.

Oklahoma does, however, bar employers from asking about or considering a criminal history record when reviewing an application if an offender has taken the additional step of having their record expunged. Applicants with expungements are also not required to answer any questions about or disclose concealed criminal records to potential employers.

Some of the biggest reforms yet for Oklahoma came in May 2019 when state policymakers passed HB 1269 making certain drug and property crimes less severe retroactively. The legislature also passed bills expanding the ability of former offenders to obtain certain occupational licenses and expunge nonviolent felony criminal records. Tens of thousands of people in Oklahoma are now eligible for expungement simply for having once been convicted of a nonviolent drug offense.

The “Ban the Box” Movement

Criticism of criminal record questions on job applications prompted the so-called “ban the box” movement beginning in the 1990s. Advocates hoped to give former offenders improved chances of competing effectively on job applications.

The idea gained steam during the 2008 economic recession when many Americans found themselves newly unemployed for the first time in years or even decades and hamstrung by past mistakes.

The Bottom Line

Until questions about arrests and criminal records are universally removed from the job applications, expungement remains the most effective way to ensure that past mistakes do not continue to affect job prospects. In Oklahoma, expungement means an applicant does not have to disclose the expunged record to a potential employer. Oklahomans need to know that they have options for dealing with a previous conviction and expungement is one way they can get back to life.

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