An Oklahoma City man strangled his pregnant wife until she blacked out, then he punched her repeatedly, causing bone fractures and a black eye.
An Anadarko man shoved his ex-girlfriend onto her bed, jumped on top of her and held a knife to her throat while screaming at her in front of her three children.
An Ardmore man hit his girlfriend in the face several times while he was driving, knocking out her two front teeth.
Oklahoma law regards these, and all domestic abuse as nonviolent crimes. Offenders convicted of felony crimes that aren’t on the state’s violent crime list often serve less time and receive less scrutiny when they are up for parole.
Legislation to change the status of domestic abuse charges is already receiving strong support from many lawmakers early in the session. At the same time, criminal justice reform advocates are pushing a state question that would limit sentences for some repeat offenders – part of a years-long effort to reduce the state’s prison population.
The dual efforts reflect a growing tension between victim advocates, who worry that reducing sentences could endanger many victims, and justice reform advocates, who say high incarceration rates contribute to crime and ruin lives and communities.
For victim advocates, tougher sentences against domestic violence abusers is long overdue.
Oklahoma is in the minority of states that punish domestic violence as a nonviolent offense. An Oklahoma Watch review found that at least 26 states prosecute domestic abuse as a violent crime.
Advocates for victims say the state’s antiquated laws perpetuate the outdated notion that intimate partner violence is a private matter that should be dealt with at home, not in the courts.
“Domestic violence hasn’t ever been taken too seriously by our state,” said Molly Bryant, a victim advocate at Domestic Violence Intervention Services in Tulsa. “We’re still trying to play catch-up because domestic violence hasn’t ever been considered a violent crime, so we’re still trying to seek accountability when it’s never really been there.”
Repeat offenders can receive longer sentences – including life in prison in some cases – if they have prior domestic abuse or felony convictions. But State Question 805, a new effort to reduce the state’s high incarceration rate, would remove a tool that prosecutors say is necessary to hold domestic abusers accountable.
Supporters of criminal justice reform say tougher sentences for repeat offenders are too extreme for nonviolent crimes, including domestic violence. They say extended prison stays should be replaced with rehabilitation programs and increased support for victims.
“Appropriate sanctions, including a period of incarceration coupled with effective programming and proper accountability, offer the most effective approach to reducing domestic violence in Oklahoma,” said Kris Steele, founder of Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform. “The research indicates the swiftness and certainty of the sanction or period of incarceration, not the length of time, makes this element of corrections effective in modifying behavior.”
The Oklahoma House unanimously approved a bill last week that reclassifies domestic abuse by strangulation as violent and increases sentencing for offenders. House Bill 3371 is now before the Senate.
Senate Majority Whip Rob Standridge has also filed bills adding domestic-abuse offenses to the state’s list of violent crimes and requiring more violent offenders to serve 85% of their sentence. Last year, HB 1056 sought similar changes but died in the Senate after stalling in committee. Much of the pushback came from criminal justice reform advocates, he said.
Steele, former House speaker, said he supports adding domestic violence charges to the state’s list of violent crimes. But State Question 805, backed by the criminal justice reform group he leads, would prevent a tougher maximum sentence from being imposed for repeat offenders. Under SQ 805, “sentence enhancement” for subsequent offenses – or sentences that exceed maximums for the crime – would still be permitted for other violent crimes, but not domestic violence.
A Question of Reform
Oklahomans for Sentence Reform is gathering signatures in support of the state question, a constitutional amendment that would eliminate longer sentences for repeat offenders of nonviolent felonies. Advocates are touting the amendment’s potential impact on those convicted of nonviolent crimes such as drug and property offenses. But it would also apply to domestic violence felonies, including domestic assault by strangulation, domestic assault and battery with a deadly weapon, and domestic abuse against a pregnant woman resulting in a miscarriage.
To put the question on the ballot, proponents need to gather at least 177,958 signatures by March 26.
If voters approve it, the measure will hinder some efforts to toughen sentences for domestic abusers. Legislators, however, could still expand the range of sentences for domestic abusers.
Candida Manion, executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said SQ 805 sends a message to domestic-abuse victims that they are less a priority than victims of other violent crimes.
“When abusers aren’t held accountable, the violence escalates and that’s when they end up killing someone,” Manion said. “In Oklahoma, we don’t hold offenders accountable already, but whatever was there, this (SQ 805) will remove that, making it worse.”
In March 2018, a Dill City couple argued about who should do the dishes. Frankie Balderas wrapped his arm around his girlfriend’s neck and squeezed until she passed out on the kitchen floor, according to court records. Two days later, Balderas chased after his girlfriend’s dog with a sledge hammer. When she stood between him and the dog, Balderas slapped his girlfriend’s face and hit her three more times, leaving her with a black eye.
Balderas pleaded guilty to domestic assault and battery and domestic assault and battery by strangulation. He was eligible for tougher sentences on both counts because he had prior felony convictions in Oklahoma County, including domestic abuse and two counts of domestic assault and battery with a dangerous weapon. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and five years’ probation.
If SQ 805 had been in effect the maximum sentence for Balderas would have been four years in prison – three for domestic strangulation and one for domestic assault.
Steele said prosecutors could still punish “truly violent” domestic abusers under SQ 805 by charging them with non-domestic crimes that are considered violent by the state.
But prosecutors say they’re required to file charges that best fit the specific crime, which means domestic assault charges if the victim is in an intimate relationship with the perpetrator. District Attorneys Jason Hicks and Allie Spears Buckholts worry that the practice could lead to underreporting of domestic violence and put a dent in federal funding from the Violence Against Women Act, which supports victim advocates, special prosecutors and domestic violence courts in some counties.
“Victims are already frustrated when they find out that their bruises are only worth a year or whatever it is,” Spears Buckholts said. “This is just going to make it worse because now it’s more bruises for them but the offender isn’t getting more time.”
Sentence reform advocates say increased prison time has not been shown to reduce violent tendencies, and in some cases it makes abusers more violent. Reducing Oklahoma’s prison population would allow state funding to be diverted from the Department of Corrections to preventive programming, treatment for substance abuse and mental illness, and victim services. The department’s budget for this fiscal year is $556 million.
Nicole McAfee, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, said all offenders, even domestic abusers, have to be included in conversations about reform to achieve real change.
“I think that we’ve really got to dig into the discomfort of thinking about the fact that these tough-on-crime decisions are bad for everyone, even for crimes that are considered more egregious,” McAfee said.
A Middle Ground?
Some proponents of criminal justice reform say it’s possible to reduce incarceration rates and bring domestic abuse sentences in line with the majority of the country.
Many victim advocates say they support reform efforts for drug and property crime offenders, but not for perpetrators of violence.
Bryant, of Domestic Violence Intervention Services, said most victim advocates agree with 95% of criminal justice reform efforts, but they diverge on removing tougher sentences for domestic abusers.
Carrie Sanders, executive director of the YWCA in Enid, said domestic abuse is about control, manipulation and escalating violence. Often, she said, putting an abuser behind bars is the only way to “keep our victims safe so they can live their lives without fear.”
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin said while she supports criminal justice reform for nonviolent crimes, she believes an exception can be made for domestic violence without damaging efforts to reduce the state’s prison population.
“When we look at property and drug crimes, things we think of as victimless crimes… it is, I think, a lot more practical to rehabilitate offenders in those areas,” Virgin said. “Whereas I don’t think we have good handle in the state about what we need to be doing in terms of prevention and rehab when it comes to domestic violence.”
Standridge said he supports sentence reform for offenders of drug and property crimes, but not for domestic abuse.
“As a society we need to take care of the citizen that was harmed in that situation,” Standridge said. “Right now, it seems like we care more about the offender than the victim.”
Correction: The story incorrectly stated that State Question 805, if approved, would keep domestic abuse as a nonviolent crime even if the offense was added to the state’s list of violent crimes. SQ 805 would not prevent domestic violence from being designated a violent crime; it would prevent sentences from being enhanced for repeat domestic violence offenders.