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OPINION

AGAINST SQ 805: It hobbles domestic violence prosecutions

Jeff Smith

I currently serve as the district attorney appointee to the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board. The mission of the Domestic Violence Fatality Review Board is to reduce the number of domestic violence-related deaths by reviewing homicide cases and developing recommendations to better protect and serve victims of domestic violence.  In my 13 years as a board member, I have reviewed far too many deaths.

I’ve learned through my experience that domestic violence is an insidious crime where offenders intentionally and repeatedly use violence to exercise power and control over their victims. The dynamics of domestic violence include repeat behavior over time, often with escalating acts of violence. A review of domestic violence fatality cases by the board between 1998 and 2015 indicates that in 62% of the cases, intimate partner homicide victims experienced physical violence by the homicide perpetrator prior to their homicide. Sadly, domestic violence is a significant precursor to child abuse fatalities. In 2018, there were 105 domestic violence-related fatalities in Oklahoma; 14 of those deaths were children, the youngest being just 3 months old.   

State Question 805 is a dangerous proposition for domestic violence victims and severely limits accountability for repeat offenders. Domestic violence is a crime that happens in secret, behind closed doors and is not limited to intimate partners. Abusers often harm or threaten harm to children and pets as a tool to gain power and control over their victims. There is a clear link between domestic abuse, child abuse, and animal cruelty. Victims of domestic violence have long-term impacts from the trauma they experience. Children who witness abuse are more likely to grow up and become abusers or victims, or both. It’s a vicious circle. 

SQ 805 constitutionally limits the ability to enhance sentences for repeat offenders of hundreds of crimes, including ALL domestic violence crimes. The punishment range for ALL domestic violence crimes would be limited to that for a first-time offender, FOREVER, including: domestic violence in the presence of a child, domestic violence by strangulation, and domestic violence on a pregnant woman. Under SQ 805, it will not matter whether it was the abuser’s first felony conviction or their 20th, the sentence range will remain the same, every time. 

To make things even worse, SQ 805 doesn’t just prohibit the use of sentence enhancements to future cases. SQ 805 applies the law retroactively and mandates hearings to reduce sentences for domestic violence offenders who are currently serving time in prison. This means repeat abusers would automatically qualify to have their sentences reduced, undoing the prior decisions of judges or juries and placing victims and their children at risk of harm.

Oklahoma has come a long way in our efforts to address victim safety while seeking to reduce domestic violence fatalities. By limiting accountability for abusers, SQ 805 threatens to halt that progress and take our state dangerously backwards.

Jeff Smith has served as the District Attorney for District 16, Latimer and Leflore counties since 2007 and has been a prosecutor for 24 years.