Already dealing with the aftereffects of a past felony conviction, Mark Gragg didn’t know how he’d get his life back on track following a misdemeanor charge in 2015.
Gragg, 53, was recently released from federal prison, where he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. And because of the prior felony conviction, finding housing was difficult.
Gragg served three years in prison for threatening Barack and Michelle Obama during phone calls he made to the secret service in 2011.
With the new misdemeanor came new fees he couldn’t afford. He worried he would end up incarcerated again.
“I had to carry around my backpack and clothes, everything I had,” Gragg said. “… I was worried how I was going to get back on my feet.”
Through the Special Services Docket. a diversionary program in Tulsa to help people stuck in the cycle of homelessness, tickets, fines, charges and arrests the misdemeanor was expunged from his record. The program also helped him find housing.
Without the six-month program, Gragg said, he could be in jail or still experiencing homelessness. He wouldn’t be able to navigate Oklahoma’s expungement process on his own, which can be lengthy and complicated.
In Oklahoma, people with records might be eligible to have them expunged, the legal term for clearing a criminal record.
Typically, those convicted of a crime must wait 10 years before they are eligible for expungement. In some cases, people with misdemeanors are eligible one year after the completion of a deferred judgment.
The process can be difficult.
In many cases, people don’t realize there is more than one record to have expunged, said Tulsa defense attorney Jason Edge.
There are criminal court records, such as ones that show up on Oklahoma State Courts Network and other records through Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation that are based off of fingerprints, which are more difficult to have expunged, Edge said.
Often, people believe there’s no record of their crime or arrest, but are surprised when it appears on an employer background check, Edge said.
Many people who file for expungement don’t realize companies frequently use commercial services to perform background checks, said Brady Henderson, legal director of American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma.
“So, let’s say that it takes me 10 years before I can expunge the official records of a court and of an agency, so that doesn’t automatically expunge those commercial databases,” Henderson said. “You can’t tell that private entity to take that information off.”
The records will eventually clear when the company checks their database against public records, but it could take several years, he said.
Without an attorney, the system is “incredibly difficult to navigate,” Henderson said.
“It’s not impossible, but there are simply so many rules to it,” he said.
Attorneys can charge anywhere from $300-$5,000 to do an expungement, Henderson said.
“It can vary a great deal,” he said. “It really can. But no matter what in any of those scenarios, it’s not free, and that’s (what) the reality is for anyone doing it that has to have an attorney. That’s substantial.”
OSBI charges $150 to expunge criminal records. Under an Oklahoma statute, the fee must be paid before the expungement is processed.
The fee covers processing, said OSBI’s Chief Legal Counsel Jimmy Bunn, in an email.
Processing includes reviewing and evaluating the order to ensure it’s a legitimate expungement, changing the OSBI criminal database history in compliance with the order and keeping and maintaining the record, Bunn said.
The order may expunge the record to all parties, including law enforcement, or may leave the record open to law enforcement, but not to the public, he said.
With court filing fees, the cost to expunge a record through OSBI comes to about $300, Henderson said.
Many states are taking steps to ease the collateral consequences for individuals who have a criminal record.
From 2009 to 2014, at least 31 states and the District of Columbia have taken steps to broaden the scope and impact of expungement and sealing remedies.
In Oklahoma, criminal records can make it difficult to get a job, home or public benefits, such as food stamps or disability income.
Gov. Mary Fallin recently signed in law a bill that will lighten expungement conditions on some minor offenses.
The new law, which goes into effect Nov. 1, will speed up the process for people convicted of certain offenses to have their criminal and civil records expunged.
Under the bill, the timeframe for people charged with certain nonviolent felony or misdemeanor convictions is reduced from 10 years to five years, following the completion of a deferred or delayed sentence.
Those charged with a misdemeanor dismissed after the completion of a deferred or delayed sentence will be eligible for the record to be expunged in one year, as long as there are no prior felony convictions.
Earlier this year, Fallin signed an executive order requiring state agencies to eliminate questions about felony convictions from job applications.
Also known as “banning the box,” the initiative, part of a national campaign, challenges employers to choose candidates based on skills and qualifications, not past convictions.
More than 100 cities and counties have adopted similar policies.
Oklahoma’s order does not prevent employers from asking about criminal backgrounds or issuing background checks.
However, people who have their records expunged can tell employers that they do not have a criminal record.