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'They deserve a chance to be heard': Lawmakers advance Oklahoma Survivors' Act

 South Steps of the Capitol

At the midpoint of this year’s legislative session, Oklahoma legislators advanced a bill that would introduce sentencing reform to criminalized survivors of domestic abuse.

Hannah France spoke with Oklahoma Appleseed attorney Leslie Briggs about the Oklahoma Survivors’ Act.

HF: Leslie, thank you for making some time to speak with me today. I appreciate it.

LB: Absolutely, glad to be here.

HF: So, Senate Bill 1470 passed unanimously on the Senate floor last week on the last day to do so before the deadline. This mirrors what happened last year with similar legislation passing unanimously on the House floor. But as we know, it stalled after that. Is there anything different about this year's bill that you think gives it a better chance of getting to the Governor's desk? 

LB: Absolutely. So, last year, there was still a negotiation over language that was happening. And the title was off, which is a procedural move you can make when working as a legislator to get your bill through a process. But what's exciting about this year is that the title is on and retroactivity is included. The policy is much more firmly decided, and we're so grateful to Pro Tem [Greg] Treat for advancing the policy in a much more finished way this year. 

HF: You mentioned retroactivity. Why, as a lawyer and an advocate, do you think that is an important piece to survivor justice?

LB: The only reason that we recognized this as a problem in our state is because it has happened before. There are people in our prisons who are there as a result of criminal activity that is a direct consequence of their abuse. And with the rates of abuse being so high, we firmly believe that those who have already been overly sentenced or unfairly sentenced as a result of criminal activity arising from the abuse — they deserve a chance to be heard on this issue as well. And it's important to note that this policy is about the punishment fitting the crime. It's about proportionality. It's not about guilt or innocence.

HF: While we’re on the topic, could you sort of just explain what Senate Bill 1470 or the Oklahoma Survivors’ Act would try to accomplish?

LB: If a person who has suffered domestic violence finds themselves charged with a crime, and they can prove that the crime has a nexus or has a causality to that abuse — Common example is self-defense if you're being assaulted. Another common example, maybe, you know, drug use, drug possession, that kind of a thing. Or perhaps you've been trafficked by your abuser to serve as a drug mule. There are all kinds of different crimes that we can see arising from domestic violence. And those are some of the common ones. So prospectively, folks who are facing those charges, if they're found guilty at the sentencing phase, they would get a chance to offer this kind of evidence of their abuse. They have to provide documentary evidence. They've got to provide either, you know, evidence of filing a protective order or evidence of medical records, evidence of police interactions relating to domestic violence that would support their claims that they are the survivor of abuse and the crime has a nexus with that abuse. So that's the perspective piece. It's actually the same for retroactive. The people who are already in prison get the same opportunity. There just is a separate process for those who are already in prison. 

HF: Is there anything about survivor justice in the moment right now that you think lends itself towards this bill becoming law?

LB: When I look at our coalition, our coalition is, you know, a wonderful group of sometimes competing interests. I mean, we have victims advocates in this coalition and we also have criminal reformers in this coalition. And those interests often do not align. Those interests can sometimes be at odds. And so, here we have really a crossing of different interests to work together on. An issue that we can see is good policy. And I think legislators are seeing that as well, especially when you look at the data in our state. And the data year over year consistently shows that we are one of the worst states for the rates of domestic violence, but also rates of women killed by men, the vast majority of those being intimate partner murders. We have a real crisis of domestic violence. And I think our legislature is really open to finding solutions. And this is one really sound solution to the problem.

HF: Thank you so much, Leslie. I appreciate your time.

LB: Thanks, Hannah.

KGOU is a community-supported news organization and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donateonline, or by contacting our Membership department.

Hannah France started her work in public radio at KBIA while studying journalism at the University of Missouri. While there, she helped develop and produce a weekly community call-in show, for which she and her colleagues won a Gracie Award. Hannah takes interest in a wide variety of news topics, which serves her well as a reporter and producer for KGOU.
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