Domestic violence poised to become ‘violent crime’

BY WHITNEY BRYEN
Oklahoma Watch
05/23/2020 12:00 PM
Main Cherokee Phoenix
A man hangs his head during a batterer intervention class at Catalyst in Oklahoma City. The 52-week program is an alternative to prison ordered by the court for some of Oklahoma’s domestic abusers. WHITENY BRYEN/OKLAHOMA WATCH
Main Cherokee Phoenix
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative stories on important issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org. COURTESY
A bill that would add four domestic violence offenses to the state’s list of violent crimes is headed for Gov. Kevin Stitt’s desk, and indications are he will sign it.

If he does, the crimes will be the only domestic abuse charges to join 51 other offenses on a statutory list that would mean convicted offenders could serve more time and would receive more scrutiny when they’re up for parole. The crimes likely to be added are domestic abuse by strangulation, domestic assault with a dangerous weapon, domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and domestic assault and battery with a deadly weapon.

Oklahoma is one of at least 26 states that treat domestic violence as a nonviolent offense.

Abuse victims and victim advocates praised legislators for approving House Bill 3251, which passed 92-0 in the House in March and 43-2 in the Senate on May 11.

Candida Manion, executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which advocated for the bill, said the move is necessary to hold abusers accountable and to fight antiquated perceptions that domestic abuse is a private matter that should be dealt with at home, not in the courts. Victim advocates and prosecutors have pushed to add domestic violence charges to the list of violent crimes for years.  

“The message is that we do take this seriously,” Manion said. “This is a big deal because we can affect real change in the criminal justice system.”

A representative from the governor’s office said Stitt is supportive of the bill and expected to sign it into law.

Despite the apparent victory, supporters said more is needed to protect victims and lower the state’s high rates of domestic abuse. Manion said advocates are concerned that a criminal justice reform ballot question would blunt the effects of making domestic abuse a violent crime. Criminal justice reform advocates said they support adding domestic violence to the violent-crime list, but don’t agree it would prevent abusers from being held accountable.

‘We Need to Help Them’

Tulsa mother Sherea Carter endured years of emotional and physical abuse by her ex-boyfriend. The scariest incident, Carter said, was in November 2018, when he strangled her while she was holding their 5-week-old daughter.

Carter said the rage in his eyes was terrifying, but even more frightening was the realization that “I have a child here that I’m holding and if I drop this child, it could be detrimental to her health or even her life.”

Carter reported the incident to police in January and eventually got a victim protective order, but no charges were filed. She said police told her she had waited too long to report the incident. 

Carter called HB 3251 “a good start” but more jail time for abusers isn’t enough to stop the violence.

Carter’s ex-boyfriend has served time for other charges, but without mental health services, treatment programs and reintegration assistance, he will likely never change, she said.

“He’s just serving time and going back to it,” Carter said. “We need to help them, not just lock them up.”

Effects of State Question

Proposed State Question 805, backed by Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, is a constitutional amendment aimed at reducing the state’s high incarceration rate, which has led to overcrowded prisons. But the measure would also remove a tool that prosecutors and advocates say is necessary to hold abusers accountable.

Currently, repeat offenders can receive longer sentences – including life in prison in some cases – if they have prior domestic abuse or felony convictions. SQ 805 would remove those sentence enhancements for nonviolent offenders and those convicted of domestic abuse after the new law goes into effect.

The state question defines violent offenses as only those listed in the state statute on Jan. 1, 2020. That means under SQ 805, sentence enhancement would be permitted for other violent crimes, but not for domestic violence. That would prevent tougher maximum sentences from being imposed for repeat abusers.

Kris Steele, who heads Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, said he supports adding domestic abuse to the state’s violent crimes because it “validates the seriousness of domestic violence.”

He said repeat offenders convicted of domestic abuse charges would not be eligible for sentence enhancement, which is commonly called “stacked charges.” But, he said, prosecutors have the power and discretion to charge abusers with a non-domestic crime that is labeled as violent, such as aggravated assault and battery, if the evidence supports it.

State question advocates tout the measure’s potential impact on those convicted of drug and property offenses.

But because it would also apply to domestic violence felonies, many advocates for domestic abuse victims oppose the question. Manion said victim advocates are prepared to launch a campaign against the measure if it reaches the ballot.

In the meantime, the state question has stalled.

Steele’s group was gathering signatures in support of the state question for months when COVID-19 emergency orders took effect, halting the effort. The Secretary of State’s office closed in March and has refused to accept the signatures due to safety concerns related to COVID-19.

The Secretary of State’s office said in a statement on May 14 that the agency will not accept petitions until it can adhere to social distancing guidelines for employees who would be counting the signatures. The agency is still closed to the public due to safety concerns for its employees, many of whom are 65 and older, according to an email from the department.

“Secretary Rogers’ top priority is protecting public health, including that of state employees during this time,” the statement said.

In May, supporters of SQ 805 asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to order the Secretary of State’s office to accept the signatures and, if enough signatures are validated, add it to a 2020 ballot. The Oklahoma Supreme Court heard arguments on May 15, and a decision is pending. 

The deadline for getting SQ 805 on the Nov. 3 ballot is Aug. 19.

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