Oklahoma City -- During and after a State Capitol rally held Tuesday (May 23), members and/or allies of the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition intensified their pleas for restoration of provisions in House Bill 1639 that would allow judicial review of the sentences faced by women who have endured long sentences for defending themselves against violent aggressors.
As reported Monday in The City Sentinel, the coalition and others are seeking the legislative equivalent of a miracle. If it is not forthcoming, the best they can do is " mourn the survivors of domestic violence, mourn for those who “will be left behind bars.”
One speaker at the Tuesday rally was Stephanie Henson, a leader with Oklahoma League of Women Voters.
In a commentary for The City Sentinel newspaper earlier in this session, said,
"Right now, judges and prosecutors regularly use Oklahoma’s outdated criminal code to secure convictions and long sentences, resulting in sentences that are far longer than the national average and getting longer.
"The women caught up in Oklahoma’s criminal justice system have enormous potential and we are hurting them, their families, and our communities by locking them up at such high rates. One study of women in Oklahoma’s prisons found that nearly 7 in 10 had children and two-thirds of them were living with their children at the time of their arrest.
"With research consistently showing that even a brief stay in jail can totally disrupt a family, and that long sentences do not make us safer, we have to ask: why are we doing this?
"The unfortunate reality is that many Oklahoma women face the impossible choice between protecting their families and not being charged with a crime.
"Currently, one in every six women in Oklahoma prisons is serving a prison sentence for child abuse or neglect, making it the most common charge for women in Oklahoma’s prisons.
"Many of these women are themselves survivors of domestic violence and were prosecuted for failing to protect their children from an abusive situation."
Retired classroom teacher John Thompson, a well-known writer who lives in Oklahoma City, seconded all the notions in Henson's commentary, in a letter to the Editor of The City Sentinel.
"During my years teaching high school, I saw the way that the system she describes has done long-term damage to generations of students.
"While we have made some progress in recent years, Oklahoma's justice system still has a long way to go to ensure we are strengthening our communities, making our communities safer, and reuniting families.
"Even after recent reforms to our criminal justice system, Oklahoma still has the fourth highest imprisonment rate in the country and after 30 years of being number one, Oklahoma now has the second highest rate of women’s imprisonment in the nation. Oklahomans are spending significantly longer time in prison than people in other states for the same crimes, especially for nonviolent drug and property offenses.
"The fact that prosecutors ask for an enhanced sentence for 86% of people admitted to prison shows that our justice system prioritizes punishment over recovery.
"Many people caught up in the justice system are struggling with issues like substance abuse, poverty, mental health, and trauma, and these issues cannot be addressed by harsh, long sentences."
At the Tuesday rally, Henson shared her story about a female inmate who had given her a Christmas ornament in gratitude for efforts to seek release from prison for the abused women still incarcerated.
As Henson spoke, she was flanked by reform advocates holding photographs of women who have served lengthy sentences, despite actions that could be (and have been) described as self-defense against their attackers.
After the Tuesday rally, Alexandra Bailey, senior campaign strategist for The Sentencing Project, commented “Watering down a widely popular bill that would deliver justice to thousands of domestic abuse survivors is unconscionable.”
Bailey contended, “Our legal system should take the context in which a crime was committed at sentencing, and that is what this bill had achieved in its original form. We urge lawmakers to restore retro-activity and mandatory sentencing ranges to this bill. The survivors of domestic abuse in Oklahoma, who have already suffered severe trauma, deserve nothing less.”
The reform coalition’s post-rally release pointed out, "Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of women killed by men in America. Oklahoma also has some of the highest domestic violence rates in the country, with 40.1% of Oklahoma women and 37.8% of Oklahoma men experiencing intimate partner physical violence in their lifetime.”
The original version of H.B. 1639, described as "robust," would have:
* Provided a sentencing mitigation procedure for victims who are being prosecuted. If they were found guilty, they would have been able to introduce evidence of their abuse at a sentencing mitigation hearing.
* Provided a post-conviction relief procedure for victims of abuse where there was a homicide of their intimate partner.
Will reform come late in this session, or never?
In a story for The Oklahoman, published in the Wednesday, May 24 print edition, reporter Ben Felder covered comments by several speakers.
Colleen McCarty of Oklahoma Appleseed, a non-profit group advocating for the reforms originally included in H.B. 1639, told the rally attendees:
"We are mourning the women and men who are survivors of domestic violence who are being left behind prison bars because of the failure to include retroactivity" in the legislation.
The bill's legislative advocates have indicated the retroactivity provisions were removed from the bill after a request from the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council."
Felder noted in his report, "House leaders have expressed support for the bill, including its retroactive aspect."
Nonetheless, in the complex mosaic of the Legislature's final hours (adjournment of the regular session is required by 5 p.m. on Friday), provisions with majority backing in both houses (and both parties) may not get across the line.
Concerning restoration of the retroactivity provisions, Felder noted, "Although theoretically possible, in the final days of the session, such an action would require extraordinary effort by legislators who are focused primarily on the budget."
Note: Pat McGuigan, editor emeritus for The City Sentinel - Oklahoma City, is the co-editor of 'Crime and Punishment in Modern America', a scholarly compilation of conservative and libertarian policy recommendations aiming to improve the criminal justice system. The book was produced in the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration, when McGuigan worked as a legal policy analyst and journalist in Washington, D.C.
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