Prospective college students should not be asked up front about their criminal histories, reform advocates told an Oklahoma House of Representatives panel on Tuesday.
“Most institutions, the primary reason they give for asking about this is campus safety,” Columbia University professor Judith Scott-Clayton told the House Higher Education and Career Tech Committee via Zoom. “That is obviously an important and legitimate concern. But campuses are exceptionally safe places overall, and students who do commit crimes while enrolled actually rarely have any previous record that would have predicted (crime).”
Scott-Clayton said the few studies on the subject “found no evidence that asking about prior convictions improved campus safety.”
Most universities and many two-year colleges ask prospective students about criminal histories. Criminal justice reform advocates argue that simply asking the question deters many felons from seeking the additional education that is most likely to keep them from falling back into crime.
The witnesses said a felony conviction does not bar an applicant from acceptance but it does cause most colleges and universities to require more information and in some cases put conditions on acceptance.
Scott-Clayton said some schools ask not only about felony convictions but arrests and charges on complaints as minor as misdemeanor trespassing. She said 30% of all Americans under 23 have had at least one arrest, and that percentage increases to 44% for Hispanic males and 49% for Black males.
Damion Shade with the Oklahoma Policy Institute said the state’s offender population represents a largely untapped potential source of skilled workers at a time when employers are crying for them.
Kallie Watkins, who served time on drug charges and is now a career counselor for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, described her difficulties getting education while in prison and after release.
She said many people who run afoul of the law are easily discouraged from pursuing education.
“When you find yourself inside that cage, you begin to believe you’re a bad person,” Watkins said.