OKLAHOMA CITY — Efforts to force ex-cons to pay court fines before driving again are having unintended consequences, leaving former prisoners stranded and enticed back into crime, say state officials and advocates for prisoners.
State House Speaker Jeffrey Hickman has said he wants to study the dilemma as part of a broader review of the state's criminal justice system.
State law now requires those who've lost a driver’s license because of a felony conviction to pay off fines before their license is reinstated. For the typical ex-con, the charge is $3,500, said the Rev. Adam Leathers, who runs Criminal Justice and Mercy Ministries, a program that works with high-risk offenders.
The state's strict policies also affect non-felons including Oklahomans whose licenses were suspended and could easily be reinstated, except they cannot afford to pay their fines and fees.
Leathers said the state creates a cycle that forces former prisoners back to crime — like dealing drugs and prostitution. Many people drive illegally and without insurance — they can't get insurance without a license — causing problems and new headaches if they’re involved in crashes or caught driving without a license.
Adding to the problem is the fact that most ex-prisoners cannot land a job without a license. Without work, people cannot pay their fines.
“We set people up for failure,” Leathers said. “It dissolves a path of success for them.”
Hickman has said he wants to examine the hurdles faced by former prisoners as part of a broader look at whether criminal justice policies are working as intended. Oklahoma has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation and releases hundreds of inmates a month.
“The Legislature deserves plenty of blame for some of these systems we’ve set up that have made it almost impossible,” he said, adding that the license issue is a problem for the business community.
Many companies are willing to hire former prisoners, he said, but can’t because the ex-cons have no way to get to work.
“If they had a (commercial driver’s license), they could make a living in the oil field. If those individuals had a chance to make a living then there’s less incentive to go back to what go them in trouble in the first place," he said.
Advocates agree that many companies are willing to give second chances — provided that former prisoners have licenses and reliable transportation.
Most parts of the state do not have reliable public transportation, making cars a necessity.
Finding rides to work are just one hurdle for former prisoners without licenses. Parolees are expected to attend meetings to comply with the conditions of their release.
“There is a long list of things they have to do that they need transportation for in order to stay out and comply and to be a normal citizen,” said Lynn Powell, state director of Oklahoma CURE, who works with several thousand inmates and their families.
Powell said she knows of several cases in which the state actually granted licenses to ex-cons, later noticed the felony and fines on their records and revoked the licenses.
In 2013, the Legislature tried to tackle the issue by allowing provisional licenses, essentially renting licenses to those who are otherwise in good standing for $25 a month until they’re caught up with their fines and fees. That law puts strict requirements on where a person can drive. The fees go to the state, not toward paying down a person's debts.
More than a year later, it wasn’t immediately clear what impact, if any, that program is having or how many people have enrolled.
A co-author of that measure, Sen. Josh Brecheen, R-Coalgate, said he wanted to help those who lacked the “financial resources” to afford a license without sticking the costs to the taxpayer. He said the $25 a month fee helps pay the Department of Public Safety's costs of running the program. It does not give licenses to those who were convicted of alcohol-related offenses.