WILKENS: America Shouldn’t Punish Women For Defending Themselves And Their Children

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April Wilkens Contributor
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Today, I am in my 25th year of incarceration, writing these words from Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma. I was imprisoned because my life was threatened, and in a split second, I reacted out of pure survival instinct. I was imprisoned because I defended myself. 

In 1998, my ex-fiancé handcuffed and threatened to kill me after years of physical, mental and sexual abuse. As he lunged toward me, I managed to free one of his guns and kill him in self-defense.

I don’t want anyone else to go through what I have. Americans have a right to self-defense, and our legal system should reflect that. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There are thousands of domestic violence survivors behind bars in America. One study found that more than 90 percent of incarcerated women in state prisons experienced physical or sexual assaults before their sentencing. In most states, it is not common practice for courts to consider evidence of abuse a woman has suffered at sentencing. 

How do we fix such a terrible injustice?

I am not the only woman in an Oklahoma prison who is a survivor of domestic violence–far from it. For example, Shari McDonald was prosecuted in 1980 after her abusive husband coerced her into committing a robbery. The week before the robbery, her husband beat her in front of her children because she refused to rob a Tastee Freeze. Or there’s Keabreauna Boyd, who in 2020 fought back after her 9-month-pregnant belly was cut with a knife. She was given a life sentence.

There is currently legislation pending in multiple states that would deliver justice for people like me who stood up to the person who abused them, and make it easier for people across the country to defend themselves from threats. In 2019, New York passed the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, legislation that would allow the sentencing court to resentence a domestic violence survivor who suffered sexual, psychological or physical abuse that contributed to his or her conviction if certain criteria are met.

To put it another way, a court would be able to rehear cases and hand down shorter sentences to people who could show a significant link between the domestic violence they experienced and their crime. 

Other states are following suit by passing similar legislation. The California Assembly recently passed legislation that would allow incarcerated domestic violence survivors to seek relief if they meet certain criteria. In 2016, Illinois passed a law that would let incarcerated people request a new sentence if the evidence of their abuse was not presented at their original trial. 

In Oklahoma, Republican Representative Toni Hasenbeck introduced legislation that would benefit domestic violence survivors like me who fight back against the person who abused them. The Oklahoma Domestic Abuse Survivorship Act would give the court more discretion when sentencing crimes where domestic abuse was determined to be a significant factor. This bill was just unanimously passed by the Oklahoma House of Representatives Judiciary—Criminal Committee. Going forward, Oklahoma lawmakers should maintain the current language in the bill, including the current proposed sentencing ranges and retroactivity for people who have already been convicted.

There is strong bipartisan support for this kind of legislation because rigid and extreme sentencing laws have devastated too many women, and their children, after already horrific and violent experiences in their lives. Our legal system must account for the circumstances behind every crime, and sentences should be proportional depending on those circumstances. It is imperative that any legislation written to help survivors includes the opportunity for sentences to be mitigated on the front end, and the opportunity for survivors who have been serving decades the opportunity to introduce that evidence as well. These efforts must be trauma-informed and comprehensive. 

My son was only seven years old when I was incarcerated. He is 31 now, with a child of his own. I think of my granddaughter often, and I hope for change so that neither she nor any other child ever has to go through a similar situation.

As Americans, we speak so often of the right to defend ourselves from threats. As Rep. Toni Hasenbeck has said, we are not advocating for no accountability — that anyone who claims to be abused be let out without question. We are arguing that sentencing practices reflect the context in which actions were committed based on the evidence presented in court. We are advocating for proportionality. 

I urge legislators around the country to introduce and pass legislation which would allow courts to resentence domestic violence survivors who stood up to abuse. It’s smart policy, and it’s the right thing to do.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.