Study shows high rate of black felony convictions

Friday, October 20th 2006, 9:20 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- More than 38 percent of black adult men in Oklahoma have been convicted of a felony, according to a study released Thursday by the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission.

The study by the Oklahoma Criminal Justice Resource Center analyzed data from Oklahoma's prison system dating to before statehood, combined with census data and mortality rates, said commission analyst Bill Chown, who compiled the study.

The study also shows in Oklahoma in 2006, the percentage of black men in Oklahoma who had been incarcerated in a state prison was 26.9 percent, an estimated 62 percent higher than the national estimate.

Chown said there are no national studies to compare to his analysis showing 38.4 percent of black men in Oklahoma have been convicted of a felony.

K.C. Moon, director of the commission, said Oklahoma's stiff penalties for drug and property crimes compared to other states is why Oklahoma's incarceration rate is higher than the national average.

He also said poverty contributes to the high conviction percentage.

``Most of the research in this area has shown it not to be racial, but more socio-economic,'' Moon said. ``When you take poor white people and compare their conviction rate to poor black people, the rate is much more similar. It's just that more blacks are poor.''

More than 8 percent of all adults in Oklahoma have been convicted of a felony.

Overall, Oklahoma ranks fourth among all states in its incarceration rate for men and No. 1 in the country in its incarceration rate for women.

While Oklahoma grapples with the increasing costs for incarcerating inmates, there also are societal costs that result from the high rate of felony convictions of Oklahomans. The ex-felon label often hinders a person's chances of getting a job, and felons are generally banned from voting or attaining certain professional licenses, making it difficult for felons to re-enter society.

``As increasing numbers join the ranks of ex-offenders, the concept of re-entry, and the barriers that complicate that process, take on added significance,'' Chown said. ``In many cases, these 'invisible punishments' apply to convicted felons, not just persons who served time in prison.''

In addition, recently enacted federal laws prevent drug offenders from obtaining welfare or food stamp benefits, access to public housing and student loans for higher education.

Also on Thursday, the Oklahoma Sentencing Commission discussed the growth of the state's drug court system, an alternative to prison sentences in which felony offenders are required to seek drug treatment and education.

David Wright, with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, said there were more than 2,300 admissions to drug courts over the last year. Drug courts have been expanded to 51 of the state's 77 counties, Wright said.

But at least one member of the commission expressed concern over the growth of drug courts in Oklahoma. Supreme Court Justice Steven Taylor said some jurists are concerned that drug courts force judges into a role of being a social worker and implementing programs sought by the executive branch.

``(Drug courts) are an executive branch mission that's called a court,'' Taylor said. ``Judges are not social workers and courts are not part of the social services team.

``I am concerned about this train that has left the station and is picking up speed.''