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Punishing Survivors for Survival in Oklahoma

April 19, 2023

According to the Oklahoma Dept. of Health, 49% of women and 40% of men have experienced violence from an intimate partner at least once. (There are no data available on trans or gender nonconforming folks.) Many of those survivors are incarcerated, their charges stemming from the abuse they endured.

Then, a glimmer of hopeful news arrived for survivors: the Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act, authored by Rep. Toni Hasenbeck (R). In short, the bill allows for survivors of domestic/interpersonal violence to introduce evidence of their abuse in court and receive a lower sentence. In February 2023, Oklahoma’s House unanimously passed the bill, sending it on to the state Senate.

To be clear, this is good news – many survivors in Oklahoma will benefit from the bill, should it become law. But Samantha Michaels notes that survivors deserve much better than the bill as it currently stands. We must take a critical eye toward progress: the bill has been watered down significantly to appeal to Republicans.

As Michaels explains, the bill doesn’t limit prison terms; it simply requires courts to consider a person’s history of abuse as a mitigating factor. Judges aren’t encouraged to depart from the applicable sentence; they simply have discretion to do so. In other words, under the Act’s current language, “judges would still have the power to punish as they see fit.” The bill ignores countless survivors who commit crimes stemming from the abuse, such as using drugs to cope, or stealing money or food when trying to escape. Further, the legislation doesn’t apply retroactively – i.e., it will do nothing for the many survivors currently incarcerated in Oklahoma.

We at the Woodhull Freedom Foundation want to build a world in which survivors aren’t punished for their survival. The Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act gets us closer to that world, but the proposed language falls far short of the protections and support survivors should have. We urge you to read the demands of the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition and answer their call to action to write to legislators requesting that the bill apply retroactively.

Men Women

A fence with razor wire in front of a cement building with thin tall windows. It appears to be a jail. (Mark Ralston/AFP)

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