Oklahoma prison director wants to triple $485 million budget

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Hundreds of Tulsa County residents clinging to a desperate -- and sometimes untenable -- hope of making their lives better have waited in line for hours for free legal advice.

There was grandmother in her 60s, who had committed a nonviolent offense when she was 19. Four decades later, it remained on her arrest record. Her grandchildren's school barred her from volunteering because of a youthful indiscretion.

In fact, most of the people who attended a recent free Expungement Expo were over the age of 50. They had committed nonviolent offenses and misdemeanors in their 20s and 30s, said Beverly A. Atteberry, a Tulsa attorney, who specializes in criminal defense, expungement and probate. She volunteered her legal expertise at the expo offered to Tulsa County residents.

"They're adults now. They're past their young, youthful indiscretions. They're embarrassed by it, and they want it off their records," Atteberry said.

A 'Catch-22'

Having a criminal history in Oklahoma often carries a stiff price. Long after offenders pay debts to society, their criminal histories or arrest records can bar them from jobs, promotions, housing, insurance coverage, occupational licensing and even education programs.

While tens of thousands of Oklahomans are eligible to have crimes and arrests expunged -- or erased -- experts say they're handcuffed by the state's expensive and cumbersome process.

The state's recent criminal justice reform efforts, meanwhile, have made an estimated 65,000 Oklahomans eligible for expungement, according to an analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a liberal-leaning think tank.

But many of those people can't afford it, said Damion Shade, a criminal justice policy analyst with the think tank.

"The biggest impediment is money," Shade said. "The process is just expensive and prohibitive for people who don't have access to an attorney."

Expungement costs can start at $400 to $500 for those trying to navigate the justice system without the aid of an attorney, he said. Lawyers often charge thousands of dollars with no guarantee of success.

Also, court costs and fees have to be paid first.

"It is pushed far, far out of reach of most people," Shade said.

"There's an irony to that," he said. "You can pay all your court fines and fees if you have this nice job you could get if you didn't have this felony conviction. It's that cyclical 'Catch-22' that people find themselves caught in."

The unemployment rate is five times higher for people convicted of misdemeanors and felonies, Shade said. The unemployment rate is increased more for people with only felony convictions.

In 2016, Oklahoma had the highest incarceration rate of those 18 and older at 1,310 per 100,000, according to the recent Bureau of Justice Statistics analysis.

"When you are the prison capital of the world … sometimes you have to have expungement expos," Shade said.

'Trying to move forward'

November marked the third time an expungement expo had been offered in Tulsa County.

The event featured hundreds of Oklahomans lining up before 6 a.m. Some made a night of it, even pitching tents to ensure they'd get access to free legal advice.

"(They're) just desperately trying to move forward with their lives," Shade said.

When Atteberry arrived at the free expo, about 500 people already were waiting.

As an attorney, she gets lots of calls each year from people hoping they might be eligible to expunge past indiscretions.

In some cases, judges seal criminal records, but offenders later discover the record of the arrest still remains. They need that sealed as well.

"There are people in Tulsa who charge outrageous costs for expungement," Atteberry said. "You don't have to gouge people because they're desperate to get things taken care of."

Modeled after similar initiatives in Dallas and Chicago, Tulsa County's program offered a free one-stop shop for participants.

Participants first filled out an information sheet. They then chatted with the Tulsa County Court Clerks Office, which determines if they still owe any fines or costs. Those who do owe money typically are placed on payment plans, given advice on how to reduce costs and officials then recall outstanding warrants.

Some people discover they owe $100, Atteberry said.

If debts are paid in full, they head over to consult with one of the 15 to 25 volunteer attorneys, who conduct an initial review to determine eligibility. They also can provide some general information about seeking a pardon.

Then, they meet with Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation officials to order a copy of their arrest record. Tulsa Police also provides a listing of traffic citations or municipal cases.

A final attorney -- in this case, Atteberry -- then reviews everything. She's handling all the male expo applicants' cases pro bono. The nonprofit Still She Rises is processing all female applicants.

Detangling debt

When she was a University of Tulsa law student, Madison Cataudella, of Owasso, volunteered at the event.

"I was kind of naïve about knowing how much this affected our community," she said.

Many of the people she spoke with "just wanted a clean slate. They wanted an opportunity to restart," said Cataudella, who recently graduated and is now preparing for the bar exam. Numerous attendees at this year's expo were impacted by recent criminal justice reform efforts.

She said Oklahoma's expungement process is complicated for people who have never been exposed to it.

"It's all the minutiae in between that can make it difficult to navigate," she said. "For the average citizen, it would be very overwhelming."

Even experienced expo volunteers had to first attend a lengthy training session that explained the forms and outlined what happens during the process.

"Knowing where to even find those answers is half the battle," she said.

In a statement, the Governor's Office said it is looking into expungement issues.

Currently, the free expungement expo is limited only to Tulsa County residents.

"There's no way we could do 77 counties or really the surrounding counties," Atteberry said.

Still, some advocates say they're working behind the scenes to drum up enough support to expand the program to other Oklahoma urban centers, with rural parts coming next.

In the meantime, Shade, with the think tank, said he hopes lawmakers can figure out a solution that helps detangle court debt from expungement.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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