Area officials address the perception of domestic violence in Oklahoma legislature

Sierra Rains
File photo illustrating domestic violence

Skull fractures, broken limbs, broken ribs and punctured organs. Those are just some of the injuries victims of domestic violence are regularly admitted into the hospital with.

“I go out on the calls a lot and (I’m) in the hospital with victims that are barely recognizable with skull fractures, facial fractures where they have to have plates put into their face,” said Family Shelter of Southern Oklahoma victim advocate Dee Dee Hunter.

However, domestic violence isn’t currently considered a violent crime per statute in Oklahoma. “If anybody could go out on the front lines and see what we do with the violence, it not being considered a violent crime is just outrageous to me as a victim advocate,” Hunter said.

While lawmakers are currently working to add domestic violence by strangulation to the list of violent crimes, several other domestic violence-related crimes will still be considered non-violent offenses even if the bill passes into law.

Consequently, a state question that may appear on the November ballot in Oklahoma as an initiated constitutional amendment is causing rising concern among domestic violence victim advocates and area officials who say the measure would increase lethality for victims.

In broader terms, Oklahoma State Question 805 would prohibit a person’s former non-violent felony convictions from being used to enhance their sentences.

“Its purpose is to protect repeat offenders from receiving greater punishments than first time offenders,” said District Attorney Craig Ladd, adding that he strongly opposes the measure.

Under current state statute the crime of domestic abuse, for example, is punishable by imprisonment in the county jail for no more than one year or up to four years in the custody of the Department of Corrections.

A second or subsequent offense can enhance an individual's sentence up to four years.

Ladd said SQ 805 would cap the maximum sentence for repeat domestic abusers, including those who seriously injure or harm the victim in an effort to kill them, at four years in prison — even if those offenders had 10 prior felony domestic abuse convictions.

While domestic violence isn’t considered a violent crime by the Oklahoma legislature, Ladd said his experience prosecuting domestic violence cases has proven the opposite.

“I have prosecuted many first degree murder cases, more than I can count on one hand, which stemmed from domestic violence,” Ladd said. “Truly, I do not understand the logic of seeking a constitutional amendment to go easier on career criminals. It makes absolutely no sense to me.”

Family Shelter Executive Director Kathy Manning said sentence enhancements help protect victims of domestic abuse and if SQ 805 was passed, the lethality potential for victims would sky rocket.

“By not having these sentence enhancements these perpetrators are not going to be held accountable for their crime(s) and it will end up in domestic violence related homicides,” Manning said.

Perpetrators with a history of violent, abusive behavior are likely to commit a second offense after being released from jail and will often return to the victim. Even if it’s not the same partner, the pattern of violence is likely to continue with other victims, Hunter said.

“They may be sentenced for 30 days and what happens after that 30 days?,” Manning said. “The violence that is sustained after that is just unimaginable to people that don’t have to go through it. I mean we’ve got pictures, we deal with it every day. It’s so difficult.”

Oklahoma State Representative Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, said domestic violence is currently not considered a violent crime by the Oklahoma legislature due to past notions of the term. However, the perception is changing.

“We are doing our very best to change that way of thinking and to change the laws to reflect that, Townley said. “But in the past it was considered a household spat. Anything that happened in a marriage or in a home, it could even be with a significant other, not necessarily a spouse.”

An Oklahoma House bill increasing the penalty for assault and battery with an intent to cause great bodily harm by strangulation or attempted strangulation against an intimate partner or family member recently passed through the house.

Townley said she voted in support of House Bill 3371, which also adds domestic abuse by strangulation to the list of violent crimes in Oklahoma.

While the bill doesn’t cover all domestic violence offenses, Townley said domestic abuse by strangulation is considered to be one of the most dangerous.

Currently in Oklahoma, an individual who strangles a neighbor or a stranger can and will likely be charged with a felony. However, if a person were to strangle their husband, wife or intimate partner they may or may not face charges, Townley said.

“If we put some teeth behind it maybe now it will start getting a little more awareness where it’s just not acceptable,” Townley said. “We have got to get ahold of it for the sake of our kids, for our families and men and women, spouses.”

Townley said she is extremely confident that HB 3371 will make it into law. However, domestic violence victim advocates maintain that domestic violence needs to be considered a violent crime before measures like SQ 805 can be enacted.

“It looks like a great opportunity, it really does. But there’s that bottom line and it’s not a good one,” Manning said. “Domestic violence in the state of Oklahoma, it’s a big deal. It’s happening all over the place and we need to come to terms with it.”

If you or someone you know experiences domestic violence, The Family Shelter of Southern Oklahoma offers free services, including counseling and crisis services. The 24-hour Crisis Hotline number is (580) 226-6424.