Better policing, tougher laws, longer sentences: For decades, that has been the dominant approach to domestic violence in the United States, as advocates sought to make the state treat “private” violence as the urgent threat that it is. But as the costs of police power and mass incarceration have become clear, criminal justice reformers have been working in the opposite direction, seeking to reduce harsh sentencing. Sometimes these efforts collide, when domestic violence is used as a justification for opposing reforms to the criminal legal system.
That’s what is happening now in Oklahoma. In recent years, criminal justice reformers have been trying to change the state’s identity as “the world’s prison capital,” as the Prison Policy Initiative dubbed it in a 2018 report. As of 2016 Oklahoma had the highest per capita incarceration rate in the United States, with 1,079 people in jails, prisons, immigration detention, and juvenile facilities per every 100,000 residents. Thanks to organizing by a trans-partisan coalition, the state recently reduced some sentences and streamlined the parole process, and the prison population has fallen. Still, drug offenders spend 78 percent more time behind bars in Oklahoma than the national average; people convicted of violent crimes spend 21 percent more time locked up.
Now voters are considering a constitutional amendment known as State Question 805, which would prohibit sentence enhancements for nonviolent crimes. Currently, someone convicted of a nonviolent crime like drug possession or burglary can have their prison sentence extended beyond the maximum punishment if they have prior convictions on their record. This happens frequently: Nearly 80 percent of Oklahomans with prior convictions have had their sentences enhanced. Enhancements make it possible for prosecutors to seek, and for judges to hand out, 20- and 30-year sentences, even life, for nonviolent crimes. Prosecutors also use the threat of enhancements to secure plea deals. According to an independent analysis of the amendment, it would reduce the prison population by roughly 8.5 percent by 2030 and save the state up to $186 million over the next 10 years—money that supporters say could be redirected towards prevention and rehabilitation.
Domestic abuse has become a flashpoint in the debate over the measure, with opponents calling the amendment “a tragedy for victims of domestic violence.” Until May of this year, several domestic violence crimes in Oklahoma were classified as “nonviolent” offenses. Because SQ 805 uses crime classifications from January 1, 2020, its passage would mean some domestic violence convictions would not be eligible for sentence enhancements. This, opponents say, endangers victims and “gives serial abusers a pass to continue their abusive behavior by not holding them accountable for their repetitive and often increasingly violent behavior,” as one assistant district attorney wrote in a recent op-ed.
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SQ 805 is opposed most aggressively by prosecutors and their lobbying organization, the District Attorneys Council. As Politico reported in April, the group funds itself partly through fees collected from criminal defendants. The Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault also opposes the reform. Another organization, Oklahomans United Against 805, is led by the cofounder of a Family Justice Center in Oklahoma City. (Family Justice Centers offer a variety of services to victims of domestic violence, and usually have close relationships with law enforcement.)
But other anti-violence advocates and domestic abuse survivors in Oklahoma—as well as across the United States—have become skeptical about the value of extended prison time as the primary solution to domestic violence, and some are supporting SQ 805. One reason is the fact that sentence enhancements can result in abuse victims’ spending more time in prison themselves. Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any other state, and according to a 2014 study, two-thirds of the women in the state’s prisons were abused by a partner in the year before they were incarcerated.
“I feel very strongly that there is a lot of fearmongering and misinformation and flat-out lies being told to Oklahomans” by opponents of the amendment, said Sonya Pyles, an abuse survivor who got caught in a cycle of enhanced sentences and served several years in prison on drug-related charges. “I did not receive any rehabilitation, any drug treatment, and certainly not any therapy or anything that would have helped address the underlying issues that led me down the pathway to addiction,” Pyles said. At one point she faced up to 20 years in prison for nonviolent crimes because of enhancements. But she was able to enter a diversion program, and now works as a program coordinator for Tulsa Lawyers for Children and has been active in the “Yes on 805” campaign. “I have been brutally beaten. I have been shot at. I’ve been through it, and I wholeheartedly support [SQ 805], because I believe the millions of dollars taxpayers are spending to incarcerate Oklahomans…could be better spent on providing resources for victims of crimes, [and] for people who commit the crime of domestic violence,” Pyles said.
Advocates have also pointed out that there’s little evidence indicating longer prison sentences make people less likely to abuse their partners in the future. Instead, incarceration can aggravate conditions associated with intimate partner violence, including unemployment and trauma. “Even if prosecution rates were higher, incarceration wouldn’t and hasn’t solved the problem of domestic violence,” wrote Molly Bryant, a social worker who works with a domestic violence organization in Tulsa. “There are no domestic violence abuse programs in Oklahoma prisons. Prison puts a pause on the act of domestic violence, but it doesn’t end the cycle of domestic violence. This means that once they are released, many come out angrier and more violent, not less.”
Jacqueline Blocker, the engagement director for Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform, a coalition that has been leading decarceration efforts in the state along with the ACLU and other groups, said she decided to talk publicly for the first time about her own experience of intimate partner violence specifically because of the way opponents of SQ 805 were wielding the issue. “It sickens me that anyone would exploit the trauma of surviving an abusive relationship to promote their own political agenda,” Blocker wrote in February, in response to an op-ed from a district attorney raising concerns about SQ 805’s impact in abuse cases. “This attempt to appeal to domestic abuse victims is click-bait writing to scare Oklahomans who support criminal justice reform. There is abundant and overwhelming research that shows our state’s use of extreme sentences don’t make our communities safer.” Blocker told me that she sees SQ 805 as an opportunity to reallocate resources to preventing or interrupting abuse before it escalates to the level of criminal prosecution. “I think the state needs to be better invested on the front end, rather than on the back end, because the damage has already been done at that point,” she said.
Opponents of SQ 805 warn that it will “create a culture where committing crime is acceptable.” That’s obvious hyperbole: People convicted of crimes related to domestic violence in Oklahoma would still go to prison if the measure passes. The state already treats “domestic abuse with a prior pattern of physical abuse” and domestic assault with a dangerous weapon as felonies punishable by up to 10 years; that won’t change. And the legislature could increase maximum sentences anytime.
But beyond the factual squabbles, the debate in Oklahoma reflects deeper schisms within the anti-violence community. As I reported recently, many domestic violence advocates have been reckoning with the way their reliance on police and prisons has alienated or harmed some survivors, while helping others. This is genuinely delicate terrain for many organizations that are dependent on funding allocated by politicians who, particularly in conservative areas, may not look kindly on alternative approaches. Some organizations have lost partnerships and financial support for merely expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. As SQ 805 illustrates, other advocates and survivors think the legal system should be more aggressive in its response to abuse, not less. “In Oklahoma, we don’t hold offenders accountable already,” Candida Manion, executive director of the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and a critic of 805, told Oklahoma Watch.
So far, most criminal justice reform efforts at the state and federal level have depended, politically, on dividing violent and nonviolent crimes. But it’s not possible to significantly cut incarceration rates without including in reforms people who’ve committed violence. And as SQ 805 illustrates, that distinction isn’t always neatly drawn. Many opponents of SQ 805 say they’re committed to the goal of reducing hyper-incarceration, yet there remains a fundamental disconnect between that mission and an anti-violence strategy based on lengthening criminal penalties. There are some examples of anti-violence groups bridging the gap: In 2014, for instance, the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women opposed an amendment to federal reform legislation called the Smarter Sentencing Act that would have imposed new mandatory minimums for domestic violence and sex crimes. In Oklahoma, whether voters see the goal of reducing incarceration and the effort to protect domestic abuse victims as contradictory or reconcilable remains to be seen.