UPDATE (4/26/23) — A bill created to support survivors in the system is one step closer to becoming a reality. House Bill (HB) 1639 passed in the Senate on April 25, 2023, with a vote of 46-1.
Senator Michael Brooks was the only vote against HB 1639.
“We are bolstered and proud of the Senate's vote today to pass the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act. It has been a long journey to get here," said attorney Colleen McCarty founder of Oklahoma Appleseed. "Since the beginning of this campaign we have asked the legislature to pass HB 1639 with retroactivity so that all of our survivors in the state have a chance at justice."
McCarty says that,"HB 1639 will now go back to the House for conference where we will finalize the language and hopefully pass across both houses again to the Governor's desk. This law change is the the only chance many survivors have to right-size their sentences."
UPDATE | March 2, 2023: Attorney Colleen McCarty who was at the Oklahoma State Capitol today has confirmed that the survivor bill HB1639 has passed on the House committee unanimously.
"Survivors across the state are grateful to the House Criminal Judiciary Committee for passing HB1639 unanimously. It is imperative that this measure helps survivors who will be prosecuted and acknowledges the injustices of the past by offering sentencing relief," said McCarty.
The bill also called the Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act will now go to the House of Representatives.
“This legislation will provide justice to domestic abuse survivors in Oklahoma by giving courts more nuance in sentencing and the ability to resentence people convicted of crimes where domestic abuse was determined to be a significant factor. Our legal system must account for the circumstances behind every crime, and sentences should be proportional depending on those circumstances. This bill does just that," said Alexandra Bailey, Senior Campaign Strategist at The Sentencing Project.
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. - Oklahoma currently ranks as the second state in the nation for women killed by their intimate partners. Since 1993, Oklahoma's rate of incarcerating women has been among the highest in the nation.
A local, non-profit, legal, advocacy organization is actively working for the rights of survivors who are trapped within the system. Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice (OK Appleseed) was founded by attorney and Tulsa native, Colleen McCarty.
“We need to start supporting women and supporting victims in all the kinds of ways that we should be supporting everyone in Oklahoma, which is making sure that they have the basic resources to survive,” said McCarty.
OK Appleseed is supporting efforts at the legistlature for a new survivor bill, HB1639, to bring justice to survivors.
“A dream that started last year is now a reality. This bill--inspired by New York's Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act--but customized for Oklahoma and made for Oklahomans, is finally a reality,” said McCarty. “HB 1639 is called the Oklahoma Domestic Violence Survivorship Act, and it will help survivors who are getting prosecuted in the justice system for crimes that they committed as a result of their survivorship, which basically looks like someone fighting back against abuse. And then they get arrested instead of the abuser and they go to prison for often a lot longer than the abuser ever does.”
McCarty says that OK Appleseed has heard from over 100 survivors, many who are currently incarcerated at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center located in McCloud, Okla.
“April Wilkens was prosecuted in 1998 for first-degree murder after defending herself against her chronic abuser when she was handcuffed and being held captive in his basement. She was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. She's been denied parole four times, and we just really can't figure out why the system won't take her seriously. Because she has protective orders, rape kits, all the evidence you could imagine,” said McCarty. “Another one that comes to mind is a lady named Keabreauna Boyd. She was in Norman. She was nine months pregnant. She had three kids at home. Her abuser found her in her home at night asking her for money after he lost a bunch of money at the casino and they ended up getting into a knife fight. He struck her pregnant belly with a knife and she was able to get it away from him. He ended up passing away due to his injuries. She was prosecuted at first for first-degree premeditated murder.”
HB1639 supports shorter sentences for people who are prosecuted and are able to prove their abuse. A five-year sentence would go down to three. A 10-year sentence would go down to five. A 20-year sentence would go down to seven. A survivor who defended themselves against abuse would ultimately serve no more than 10 years.
McCarty says that there are a lot of steps needed to get this survivor bill passed. A majority of the people on the committee will have to vote, 'yes.' Then, a majority of the House of Representatives would have to vote, 'yes.' Next, the bill would go through the Senate committee, before getting passed by a majority of the Oklahoma Senators. Finally, the governor would have to sign it.
"But we feel really good about where we are. There's a lot of support for this bill. Domestic violence service providers and survivors across the state have really come together in this sort of tide to help and lend their voices to try to get this passed," said McCarty.
OK Appleseed has a big week coming up at the Oklahoma State Capitol starting Feb. 27, 2023.
“We have two events up at the Capitol, Survivor Justice Days. People who care about this issue, who care about survivors, and particularly who care about survivors who are serving time in prison, are welcome to meet us up at the Capitol. We will be in the Supreme Court hallway in which is a part of the Rotunda there from 9 to 5. That day we'll be talking to lawmakers about this issue, trying to ask them to pass HB1639 and trying to make sure that people understand what the experience of survivorship looks like and what justice for survivors looks like. So that will be on February 27th,” said McCarty. “On March 2nd, we're also having art projects go along with both of the days in Oklahoma City. We will carry the voices of survivors in Oklahoma prisons to our lawmakers.”
McCarty says that she believes a lot needs to change when it comes to survivors in Oklahoma's legal system.
"First off, we need to change how we respond to domestic violence cases, and we need to accept that survivors are where they are in the process of being ready to exit those situations," said McCarty. "And we need to be offering them every resource and every possible opportunity to get away. Right now, people across the state, even if they wanted to leave, oftentimes don't have the resources, don't have the transportation, don't have the money to leave, and they are economically dependent on their abusers."
McCarty also believes that law enforcement responding to domestic violence calls, as well as judges and prosecutors within the legal system would greatly benefit from training when it comes to trauma, domestic violence and coercive control.
“I think that oftentimes abuse doesn't look like what we think it should look like or what we as a society have been conditioned to think that it looks like it's a lot messier. People have a lot more complex feelings towards the person that's abusing them and instead of coming at it from a place of trying to understand oftentimes,” said McCarty. “Law enforcement and judges and prosecutors come at it from a place of judgment, saying that you shouldn't still love that person, you shouldn't still be with them, and we need to get you away from them. We need you to fully cooperate in order to believe you. And it just puts survivors in a really difficult position.”
McCarty believes that as a collective we are all beginning to recognize the nuances of what domestic violence truly is.
"I feel it's so important because we've really come to see this change as a society, that we've started to understand how women live their lives every day, oftentimes currently, in fear. And we've started to really believe women's experiences about chronic abuse. And I think that this is a way to show people that we really take them seriously for the first time," said McCarty.