In dismay after erosion of reform provisions in House Bill 1639, criminal justice reform activists rally at Oklahoma Capitol

Oklahoma City, May 23, 2023 — Despite the threat of rain (which later became rain on Tuesday, in fact), activists and leadership seeking reform for the sake of domestic abuse surivivors gathered Tuesday, May 23, for a rally at the Oklahoma State Capitol.

One reform leader pleaded for legislators “to restore retro-activity and mandatory sentencing ranges” to the measure because, without those provisions, the law’s guidelines will lead to increased raw numbers of women in the state’s prisons.

House Bill 1639, originally a sentencing reform measure to allow less time in prison for women convicted of striking back against their abusers, took a shift in the opposite direction in legislative deliberations over recent days.

As reported in The City Sentinel Online, groups working on the issue said that last Friday (May 19), members of the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition learned the Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act was being stripped “of all meaningful relief for domestic violence survivors.”

The press release said, “The language proposed by advocates included the opportunity for survivors in prison to be re-sentenced to a lower sentencing range if they established that their crime was related to their victimization. It also required judges to impose a lower sentence on survivors sentenced in the future if they established that their offense was related to their victimization.

However, the latest proposed version of the bill does not include any opportunity for re-sentencing for survivors currently in prison. It also eliminates the requirement that judges impose a lower sentence on survivors in the future by making relief completely discretionary.”

News of revisions to the legislation came as what supporters described as “a devastating blow to families who hoped that this legislation would return victims back home after years of incarceration.”

One family member, whose identity was not disclosed, as quoted in yesterday’s story, “I am sickened and distraught that the retroactivity is being removed from H.B. 1639.

The pain my family has endured by losing my daughter once to a horrible domestic violence relationship and twice to an excessive sentence in prison is too much to bear. She fought back and was stabbed in her pregnant stomach! Why is the Legislature doing this to us?”

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.”

Today’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.

Research from Oklahoma Appleseed, a reform advocacy organization based in Tulsa, suggests that hundreds of abuse survivors have been prosecuted by the state of Oklahoma to the fullest extent of the law, despite their experiences as abuse victims.

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.