Historic inmate commutation in Oklahoma calls for new approach after release
Monday, December 02, 2019
Policy reform dissolves old institutional consolidations while reaffirming socioeconomic divisions; or at least that’s the cynical view.
Criminal justice reforms provide the best example of this fact. Prison reform and decarceration efforts currently focus on eliminating cash bail; decriminalizing drug charges to misdemeanor/expungement levels; and improving prisoner programs like education, job training, and healthcare.
Decarceration locates a new residential class in a bipartisan release experiment requiring cooperating sectors — or what educators term the “wraparound” approach. While the term usually applies to youth crisis intervention teams — counselors, teachers, social workers, parents, and clergy — it captures sector cooperation from criminal justice, education, and social/medical services required for successful decarceration efforts, too.
Fitting is that the wraparound approach connects to school-to-prison pipeline issues. If for no other reason besides pragmatism, it avoids the prisoner recidivism overpopulating the system, and the engineering of another incarcerated generation.
Conservative and liberal states alike are involved in bipartisan decarceration because the problems present serious local budgetary and moral challenges. As reform becomes more popular, a legislative approach like optional post-release wraparound services avoids pitfalls requiring more legislation to fix it.
This is a good demand coming from direct action elements in local organizations and coalitions; it reveals commitments to long-term solutions.
This is a case study, if you will. These former inmates are now working residents, sharing demands with people in the working class: fair wages; the right to unionize; affordable housing/healthcare/child care; quality public education/scholarships; and continuity of safety-net services, among others.
There are competing visions of reform that render post-release obstacles part of a fledgling “release/rehabilitation state-industrial complex” of sorts. Mandatory drug testing, ankle monitoring, job training, probation and parole services, and court-ordered counseling are offered to former inmates in a cost-prohibitive price web determined by government/contractor arrangements.
The growing monetization of rehab and release is best illustrated by Arizona’s infamous Tent City becoming “an intensive multi-agency substance-abuse program” that subcontracts with the state. The incarceration era may be ending, but the rehab/regulation era is just beginning: monetized.
Money is tight as housing and income struggles lead some people to recidivism. San Francisco provides a stark example here, but more spacious Oklahoma City faces similar challenges. A 2019 Oklahoma City Homeless Alliance report links former incarceration to housing: 3 in 4 homeless Oklahoma City residents have been incarcerated.
It takes 85 weekly minimum wage hours to rent a two-bedroom apartment there. Who can afford that work load?
Oklahoma’s prison overcrowding crisis caused conflict, riots, and strike, resulting in a 2016 voter referendum leading to HB 1269, which commuted the sentences of those 462 people. Also, a new executive director for the Pardon and Parole Board and its board members began addressing 2,600 back requests for sentence commutation.
Mass sentence commutation is a legal admission of unjust incarceration practices — establishing institutional harm against inmates. However, post-release punishment continues as inmate debt. Newly released Oklahoma inmates with felony convictions can owe upwards of $5,000, according to The Marshall Project.
HB 1269 continues the punishment by allowing hefty post-release fines and restitution fees, just when people need payment relief the most.
Job and housing applicants face discrimination if they have criminal records. HB 1269 may have streamlined expungement. However, law enforcement can still access records, which means prior convictions can be used as evidence in new cases. Is that really expungement? And doesn’t mass commutation suggest that the prior conviction was harsh, therefore illegitimate?
Expungement fees remain hundreds of dollars post-HB 1269, which the state could reduce as part of its initiative.
The Appeal reports enhancement continues to complicate Oklahoma sentencing reforms. We look to education circles to provide alternatives to these ongoing post-release obstacles.
Oklahoma became known as the U.S.’s largest per capita prison population, but the 2018 teachers strike, for example, revealed the state’s political diversity. Whether it’s striking prisoners or striking professionals, teachers’ unions are incubating wraparound service approaches that inform decarceration.
In 2018, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) joined other red wave states in a strike and to address low teachers’ salaries. The OEA faces an uphill budget battle after a 20% student spending decline from 2008-2013.
The new Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) contract inadvertently addresses released inmates’ needs like affordable housing. The CTU persisted that housing is an educators' issue, even negotiating staff coordinators for homeless students: a wraparound approach.
Prison and education reforms overlap as the school to prison pipeline causes even red state residents to call for change. But why reinvent wheels? Sentence commutation suggests harm and undue hardship caused by failed policies, so wraparound support is needed.
Fair labor and housing remain the spokes that spin policy wheels away from chronic reinvention, as locales unite different wraparound populations together instead of cynically dividing them.
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