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Oklahoma Jailed Women Who Couldn’t Stop Their Abusers. Will a New Law Help?

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A GOP lawmaker’s bill might give some survivors a second chance.

In 2015, Kerry King was arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma, because she failed to stop her abusive boyfriend from beating her and her young daughter.

That’s a slight simplification (read more about her case here), but in essence, prosecutors chose to blame the victim. King, then 28, tried to fight her boyfriend off when she discovered him choking her 4-year-old. But a jury said she should have done more, whatever it took, to overcome him. As a result, King got 30 years in prison, while her boyfriend, who pleaded guilty to child abuse, got 18 years—significantly less time.

If King’s punishment seems unfair, it’s certainly not out of the ordinary. Around the country, women’s prisons are filled with mothers who were arrested in the throes of domestic violence. In Oklahoma alone, as my Mother Jones colleagues and I revealed in a recent investigation, dozens of women like King are currently incarcerated under the state’s “failure to protect” law, which punishes parents who fail to stop another person—often an abusive romantic partner—from harming their kids. Other women are locked up because they fought back and killed their abusers, or because they were coerced by violent partners into committing criminal acts.

But the number of domestic violence survivors in Oklahoma prisons could soon change. In January, a Republican lawmaker in the state, Rep. Toni Hasenbeck, quietly introduced a bill that could give some of them a second chance. The Universal Defense Act is just a shell for now—Hasenbeck still needs to plug in the particulars of what it would do. But according to an attorney who has worked with her on it, Hasenbeck hopes the legislation will help courts shorten the sentences of some survivors like King, possibly allowing them to leave prison years earlier than they might otherwise. “You’re saying, ‘Look, this person was abused, and a lot of people believe they deserved more nuance in the sentencing process because of the abuse,” says the attorney, Colleen McCarty, of the nonprofit Oklahoma Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “We’re gonna provide that.” 

Once it’s fleshed out, the Oklahoma bill is expected to be somewhat similar to New York’s Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, a landmark 2019 law that gives judges the power to shorten the prison sentences of people who can prove a link between the crime they committed and the domestic violence they experienced. The law applies to both new and old cases, theoretically helping people whether they’re going through their trials now or they’ve already spent years behind bars.

In Oklahoma, which incarcerates more women per capita than almost any other state, a change like that could have major consequences: Last year, when McCarty spoke with me about the need for such a bill, she estimated it might help about 500 women serving prison time.

But passing the legislation won’t be easy. Only a few states have similar laws, and none of them are as conservative as Oklahoma. “I’m not going to be surprised if our police unions, sheriff’s association, or district attorneys come out against it,” McCarty told me. They might ask, “Well, where do you draw the line? Many people in Oklahoma have experienced abuse. Is this gonna be a get-out-of jail-free card?”

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