Advocates vow return of abuse survivor bill that died during regular session

Muscogee NationCrimePoliticsCommunity
Collaborator: Trista Vaughn
Published: 05/31/2023, 8:06 PM
Edited: 06/03/2023, 2:46 PM

This story has been updated to include additional information from the OK Survivor Justice Coalition.

(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla) A bill to help abuse survivors who fight back against their attackers died with the conclusion of the 2023 regular session last week. 

The Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act passed the House and Senate during the session but was sent back to conference after retroactivity was removed from the bill. 

The OK Survivor Justice Coalition, a group of more than a dozen Oklahoma organizations and more than 130 volunteers, released a statement earlier this week saying the goal of this legislation was two-fold: (1) to create a procedure for survivors going forward who could introduce evidence of their abuse to receive a shorter sentence and (2) to create a procedure for survivors who have already been serving lengthy sentences to get a second chance at justice. 

"Neither of these goals would have been furthered by the final language in HB 1639, which was stripped of meaningful relief for domestic abuse survivors at the last minute," the coalition said. "Our Coalition was cut out of final negotiations on the policy, resulting in a piece of legislation that did little for survivors–past or future."  

Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice held a rally on the Capitol steps on May 23 to urge lawmakers to reinstate retroactive relief into the bill but, ultimately, it was not. 

“This bill is likely April Wilkens's last chance at life,” Oklahoma Appleseed Executive Director Colleen McCarty said. 

Wilkens has spent 25 years in prison after being charged with murder for shooting her ex-fiancé after he beat and raped her. She was convicted of first-degree murder.

“So many people have acknowledged that April's criminal sentence is a travesty, including numerous lawmakers here at the Capitol,” Wilkens’s niece Amanda Ross said. “We cannot allow the legislature to leave April and her fellow criminalized survivors in prison. We demand retroactivity in HB 1639 so that survivors can seek justice in our courts.”

Related story: Support for Oklahoma’s abused women builds at Capitol

Oklahoma Appleseed said The Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act needs to provide the possibility of lower sentences for abuse survivors who prove they were victims of violence at the time of and relating to their crime- past and present. 

The non-profit organization said over 150 survivors have written to them from prison about their stories of abuse and subsequent abuse of being incarcerated by the State of Oklahoma for surviving. 

A recent study by World Population Review found 49.1 percent of Oklahoma women and 40.7 percent of Oklahoma men either have or are experiencing domestic abuse. 

"Although no one would openly oppose HB 1639 or the concept of survivor justice, we were nonetheless fighting for this bill to survive from the first day of session," the statement from OK Survivor Justice Coalition read. "Oklahoma’s District Attorney’s Council continued to move the goalposts as we tried to accommodate their many complaints about the language in the bill." 

Survivor advocates shared their dismay on the Capitol steps last week after retroactivity was taken off the table.

“I want to say it again, the League of Women recognizes the pervasiveness of gender discrimination throughout Oklahoma,” League of Women Voters representative Stephanie Henson said. “I didn't want to believe that being a woman in Oklahoma made me less than and it has been true all my life. That is why I'm a member of the League. I just find this appalling the countervailing forces against this kind of inhumanity.”

The Sentencing Project Senior Campaign Strategist Alexandra Bailey said she is one of the many women who have survived abusive relationships, but now has to take seizure medication every day as a result of her injury.

“I encourage everybody when you go home today, I want you to take a look around your life and your community and remember that one of every two women you see, will be a survivor in this state at some point in their life,” Bailey said. 

McCarty told VNN they are committed to continuing work on the bill in the next session.


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