Bills in Oklahoma Legislature aim to tackle domestic violence
Lisa was trying to leave her abusive boyfriend, but before she could, he held her captive and beat and strangled her over a 12-hour period, beating her so badly she needed reconstructive surgery.
Her neighbors saved her life, pepper-spraying her abuser and calling police so she could escape.
Her abuser was charged with domestic violence assault and battery with great bodily harm and sentenced to 10 years. After he went to prison, Lisa was surprised and upset to learn the crime wasn't considered violent or included on a list of 85% crimes, a category of offenses for which inmates must serve at least 85% of their sentences before becoming eligible for parole consideration.
"I’m already scared for whenever he’s released," Lisa said. "To know that he isn't going to serve that whole 10 years is very scary for me."
Lisa, who is identified only by her first name for safety reasons, contacted Sen. Rob Standridge to share her story and advocate for change.
"Instead of getting upset or angry, I wanted to use all of that energy to do something good," she said. "Even if it doesn't affect him, even if it's not retroactive, at least I helped make a change. That's what was important."
Standridge, R-Norman, filed several bills this week aimed at increasing accountability for domestic violence offenders. Senate Bill 1105 would add domestic assault and battery that results in great bodily injury to the list of 85% crimes and would define the crime as a violent crime.
Standridge said he was moved by emails and letters he received from domestic violence survivors, like Lisa.
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“We must send the message that domestic assault will not be tolerated in Oklahoma,” he said.
In Oklahoma, domestic assault crimes aren't included on the list of 85% crimes. They also aren't among the 52 crimes defined as violent under state law.
"Practically, and in reality, we know domestic violence is absolutely a crime of violence, but when we look at our statutory definition of what is a violent crime, there are no domestic abuse related crimes on that list," said Angela Marsee, district attorney for Beckham, Custer, Ellis, Roger Mills and Washita counties.
"What kind of message are we sending to domestic violence victims?" Marsee said. "It’s hard enough in prosecuting a domestic violence case because of the dynamics associated with those kind of cases, and when the system itself is saying we don’t classify this crime as violent, it just adds to the reasons why a victim won’t come to this system for help."
Criminal justice reform advocates often talk about "nonviolent" crimes or offenders. Domestic violence victim advocates said it's important for people to understand what's included in that category.
Kim Garrett, CEO of Palomar, Oklahoma City's family justice center, said many people are shocked to learn that domestic violence crimes are not defined as violent. When she asks people who advocate for nonviolent offenders what they consider a nonviolent crime, most people talk about white collar crimes or drug or property crimes. When she asks if they think an intimate partner beating a pregnant woman is a violent crime, the answer is obvious.
"People are shocked that I even ask that," Garrett said. "I'll say, well, actually, by current statute classification, it's not considered a violent crime. So when people are advocating for criminal justice reform for nonviolent offenses, people tend to not realize the breadth of all that."
Another bill Standridge filed, Senate Bill 1104, would add the crime of domestic assault and battery against a known pregnant woman resulting in miscarriage or injury to the unborn child to the list of 85% crimes.
Garrett said she thinks any domestic violence on a woman who's pregnant should be classified as violent, regardless of whether it causes a miscarriage.
"It's something that certainly needs to be changed and reclassified as a violent crime, and I don't think it should matter if it created a miscarriage," she said. "I think it should be violent period."
Standridge said he's gone through a couple iterations of that bill, one of which would apply regardless of whether the attack resulted in miscarriage.
Senate Bill 1102 would authorize district attorneys to refer people accused of domestic abuse or assault to a deferred prosecution program. The accused person would be required to attend a batterers' intervention program certified by the Attorney General's Office. The accused person would be required to participate in the required counseling or treatment for at least 90 days and could not live with the victim or contact the victim or the victim's family. Standridge said the concept came from a victim advocate.
The other bill Standridge filed would increase the maximum punishment for domestic abuse by strangulation to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. It would increase the maximum sentence for a second offense to 20 years of imprisonment.
Strangulation is one of the most lethal forms of domestic violence. A person who is strangled can lose consciousness within seconds and die within minutes, and women who survive being strangled by an intimate partner are 750% more likely to later be killed by that person.
But in Oklahoma, domestic abuse by strangulation carries a maximum punishment of three years in prison and a $3,000 fine. Victim advocates say the current punishment range doesn't reflect the seriousness of the crime.
While Standridge's bill would raise the maximum penalty for offenders, it also would remove the mandatory minimum sentence of one year, which is concerning to some victim advocates.
Garrett said she's encouraged by the offender accountability and increasing sentencing, but she is concerned about the proposal to remove minimum sentencing.
"I think that could have unintended consequences," she said. "At the same time you're raising the maximum, you're lowering the minimum, so somebody could actually be getting less time."
Standridge said Thursday he didn't intend to do away with the minimum.
"If that's the case, we will correct that because I certainly don't intend to lower any minimums," he said.
He said the four bills he filed are in the spirit of what he wants to do, but he's open to feedback and discussion.
'Nobody understands how bad it is'
Oklahoma has struggled with high rates of domestic violence. From 2013 to 2016, Oklahoma ranked among the six worst states for its rate of women killed by men in single-victim, single-offender incidents. During the past several years, the state has seen improvement. This year, the state tied for a rank of 20th. In the two previous years, Oklahoma ranked 11th and 15th, respectively. The rankings are based on data from two years before the report.
Between 1998 and 2017, 1,697 victims died in Oklahoma because of domestic violence. In its most recent report, the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board, a group that tracks domestic violence deaths in the state, recommended strangulation training for those who may come into contact with victims, including judges, healthcare providers and mental health professionals.
Domestic violence service providers have worked to raise awareness about the dangers of strangulation.
Those who survive can have long-term health effects. Often, strangulation victims have no visible injuries. However, they might have serious internal injuries that can cause them to die days or even weeks later. People who have been strangled are at an elevated risk for having tears in the arteries and veins, which increases the likelihood of them having a stroke in the future.
"Nobody understands how bad it is," said Keri Thompson, a domestic violence forensic nurse for the YWCA Oklahoma City. "I have people all the time that break down in tears, like 'Oh my God, I had no idea it was that bad. How am I still alive if he strangled me that many times?'"
Thompson performs medical evaluations for people who have experienced domestic violence by an intimate partner. The exams are free, and victims don't have to report to law enforcement to receive them.
During the exam, Thompson helps make sure victims get appropriate medical follow-up. She connects them with resources and referrals, and documents their injuries. Victims have the option to turn that information over to law enforcement. If they choose to do so, Thompson can testify in court. If a person has been strangled, Thompson conducts an in-depth strangulation assessment.
During the 2018 fiscal year, Thompson conducted 135 exams. About 87 percent of the victims she saw had been strangled, and 96 percent of those strangulation victims had been strangled in the past.
"It happens a lot more than I think people realize and due to a lot of different reasons, it's minimized," Thompson said. "We have been trying to do a lot of education about how severe it is. Essentially, it's attempted homicide."
It only takes 62 seconds of pressure to fatally strangle, Thompson said. It only takes 4.4 pounds of pressure to the jugular vein to close off blood flow, she said.
"If you have someone that's very angry forcefully grabbing you, it's so easy to kill someone," she said.
Town hall planned
Standridge plans to hold a town hall at 6 p.m. Monday at the Norman Public Library, 103 W Acres Street, to discuss the proposed legislation, domestic violence issues in Oklahoma and the upcoming legislative session.
How to get help
• Victims in Oklahoma County can call YWCA Oklahoma City's 24-hour domestic violence hotline at 405-917-9922.
• The Oklahoma State Safeline, 1-800-522-SAFE (7233), provides assistance with safety planning, crisis intervention, emergency shelter and advocacy to victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, and can help individuals locate resources in their community.
• The Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault offers a list of service providers throughout the state. Visit www.ocadvsa.org/get-help for more information.