Oklahoma legislators recently passed a bill that increases the penalty of a first-time domestic violence offense from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The new law, written by Sen. Jonathan Nichols, R-Norman, was inspired by many years of serving as a prosecutor and seeing the devastation of domestic violence in families, he said.
Upon first conviction of a domestic violence offense, offenders can be charged with a felony if there is a "prior pattern of physical abuse," which requires three or more separate instances of violent behavior, according to Senate Bill 1020.
A prior pattern of abuse can be established if there is a third-party witness, or other minor charges, such as breaking and entering, that displays aggressive behavior, said Josh Beasley, chief development officer for the Oklahoma City YWCA.
A pattern, said Nichols, can be "if a neighbor sees the man abusing his wife or a store clerk sees a man abusing his wife outside in the car."
Previously, the law only required first time offenders to serve a maximum amount of one year in prison or pay a $5,000 fine. A subsequent offense resulted in a 10-year maximum sentence, according to the old law.
"There are abusers out there who are abusing their wives and girlfriends," Nichols said. "Under my law, he can now get charged with a felony with 10 years in prison."
In order to gain the victim's perspective on domestic violence, Nichols teamed up with women's coalitions and interest groups, said Janet Peery, CEO of YWCA in Oklahoma City.
"We've tried for many years to get (a first offense) to be a felony," she said.
Peery said domestic violence has only just started to be treated as a crime, especially in Oklahoma.
FOURTH IN THE NATION
In 2008, there were 23,853 cases of domestic abuse, according to a report by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. In addition, Oklahoma was ranked fourth in the nation in women killed by men, according to a 2008 report by the Violence Policy Center, based in Washington, D.C.
Peery said Oklahoma has these statistics because of huge holes in the laws, preventing protection to domestic violence victims. Oklahoma is also in the center of the Bible Belt, causing many domestic violence victims to feel ashamed or guilty if they were to choose divorce from an abusive husband due to biblical scriptures, she said.
Lack of education and services for victims also come into play in Oklahoma, Peery said.
"The access is limited, and there's not enough space," she said.
Marcia Smith, director for the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said Oklahoma has such a high rate of domestic violence because of its many rural areas.
"We're a rural state with remote areas," she said. "(The abuser) is able to keep the victim isolated."
Smith also said that being gun-friendly in Oklahoma is another cause of high abuse rates. Poverty is also a trigger for domestic violence, much like other problems.
"Poverty exacerbates domestic violence," Smith said. "These people have fewer resources to cope."
April Doshier, a community educator for the Women's Service and Family Resource Center in Grady County, said Oklahoma still has a male-dominated mentality. Male domination is a learned behavior in children, she said.
"We still live in a culture of honor. Men are heads of households, which can result in domestic violence," she said.
While the current statistics and reality are grim, experts are hoping this new law will have a huge effect on domestic violence in Oklahoma. But they know there's still a long way to go.
Although Doshier said she's happy to see the bill passed unanimously, she thinks requiring three instances of violent behavior is a large threshold for proving a prior pattern of abuse.
"One instance of prior abuse is a lot. I do wish it were less strict in the law, but this gives us the ability to prove our case," she said. "We can show the escalation."
Beasley said this new law proves the state is taking the issue of domestic violence a lot more seriously. Before the law passed, animal cruelty charges were more severe than domestic abuse charges, he said.
"I think it will take a little bit of time to see results," he said, "but any time punishment becomes more severe, people will think twice about committing (the crime)."
Peery said she thinks it will be a while before Oklahoma sees the numbers of domestic violence victims decrease.
Currently, the numbers at battered women's shelters have increased due to the economy, she said.
"A ship doesn't turn on a dime," she said. "Jamie Birdwell