Stitt signs Oklahoma Survivors’ Act into law

OklahomaCrimeHealthPolitics
Collaborator: Rachael Schuit
Published: 05/23/2024, 11:54 AM
Edited: 06/27/2024, 2:20 AM
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Pictured is criminalized survivor April Wilkens, one of Oklahoma’s most well-known survivors

(OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla.) After a long road to visibility, survivors of abuse in Oklahoma will soon be granted a new level of protection under the Oklahoma Survivors’ Act. 

Filed in December of 2024, SB1470 cleared both the Oklahoma Senate and House only to be later vetoed by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt. 

The Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, one of the leading forces behind the bill, said they worked with the governor’s office as well as legislators in the Senate and House to reach an agreement on language to get the Oklahoma Survivor’s Act passed. 

“In order to get everyone on board we have added clarifying language that more closely links the abuse with the crime at issue,” the nonprofit posted on social media. “This solution allowed the Governor and Secretary Everest to move forward confidently knowing that this reform would provide justice for survivors and keep the public safe.” 

SB1835 was created with the compromised language. After clearing the Senate and the House earlier this month, the bill was signed by Stitt on Tuesday. 

The updated Oklahoma Survivor’s Act still permits courts to reduce sentences for domestic abuse survivors who commit crimes relating to that abuse. And it still allows for retroactivity, so incarcerated domestic violence survivors could appeal for a lesser sentence if they meet the requirements.

“I thought it was vital to get this passed,” said Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat. “I don’t know if there was a miscommunication or something else that led to the original bill being vetoed, but we collectively believe it is an important piece of legislation to help those who are suffering from abuse.” 

According to Oklahoma Appleseed, the State of Oklahoma is the first Republican-led Southern state to pass a survivor justice act. 

“Now it’s time to reunite domestic abuse survivors with their families and ensure that future survivors are not punished for defending themselves,” Oklahoma Appleseed Founder Colleen McCarty said. 

Those survivors include April Wilkens, a 54-year-old grandmother serving a life sentence since 1999 for killing her ex-fiancé, Terry Carlton. 

During VNN Oklahoma’s extensive reporting on her case, Wilkens told us Carlton stalked and abused her, and on the day he died, he had beaten and sexually assaulted her.

"It feels incredibly validating that lawmakers here are standing with abuse survivors like me and working to protect us," Wilkens said following the bill's passage. "Thank God for Senator Greg Treat, Representative Jon Echols, all of the lawmakers who voted for the Oklahoma Survivors' Act, and all of our fierce advocates who helped make this much-needed law happen." 

Related Story: Two decades later, a woman sentenced to life for killing her abuser still fights for freedom

Wilkens' niece Amanda Ross kept her story alive for over a decade through her "Free April Wilkens Blog". She told VNN she never imagined legislation would be Wilkens' best chance at freedom. 

"I always thought it would be through the parole or commutation process, or eventually we would find a way out through litigation," Ross said. "In my opinion, at the time, she at least deserved all of those ways. It’s heartbreaking the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board never voted to release her. Even growing up, my parents and grandparents, who witnessed the trial, would tell me she didn’t get a fair one. We could list so many ways in which it wasn’t fair – withheld evidence, poor representation, etc. But to some degree they seemed to accept the verdict and just blame those with the money to influence the system." 

Ross said even if the parole board did greenlight parole, it would still need to be signed off on by the governor.  

"Oklahoma is one of fewer than ten states that requires the governor’s involvement in the process, meanwhile he appoints a majority of the members anyway," Ross said. "It's an uphill battle, but it was the only hill I could see at the time." 

She said she is grateful for all of Oklahoma Appleseed's work, as well as the work done by the rest of the Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition, formed by Appleseed and other organizations such as DVIS, the Oklahoma City YWCA and the League of Women Voters. 

"The Oklahoma Survivor Justice Coalition fought so hard to get this language in front of Stitt. Senator Greg Treat and House Rep. Jon Echols," Ross said. "And all the other co-authors on this bipartisan bill should be proud of what they’ve done for Oklahomans." 

"This is one step toward making Oklahoma home for women." 

The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for effective and humane responses to crime, also commented on SB1835 clearing its final hurdle.

“This is a tremendous victory for domestic abuse survivors and their families in Oklahoma,” Senior Campaign Strategist Alexandra Bailey said. “By signing this bill, Governor Stitt has demonstrated his commitment to the well-being of domestic violence survivors, and affirms his dedication to creating a safer and more supportive environment for all Oklahomans.”

A full version of the SB 1835 can be found here. 

This article has been updated to include comments from April Wilkens and Amanda Ross.

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