Change to state law brings new tools to fight domestic abuse

Lawton_A recent change to an Oklahoma law is giving prosecutors new tools to fight domestic abuse.  District Attorneys' (DA) offices now can file a felony charge against a second time offender.  DA's always have been able to file felonies if victims suffered great bodily harm, but they can now file felony charges before the level of violence reaches that point.

In Lawton alone, police worked more than 6,000 domestic abuse calls last year, and they say quite a few involved repeat offenders and victims.  Often the cases only are filed as misdemeanors, but Oklahoma could begin seeing more felony charges brought.  Each domestic violence case that comes to the Comanche County District Attorney's office is evaluated separately.  "If there is great bodily harm, we can file it as a felony the first offense," said Prosecutor Fred Smith.

Smith says that the majority of cases a prosecuted based on the situation.  For example, if someone has lashed out their partner and crossed the line physically or psychologically, prosecutors will work to determine the appropriate action to take.  "We would try to recognize that, and handle that appropriately, so we would not ruin their lives by charging them with a felony," he said.  "On the other hand, we do have the ability to discover whether or not this is a cycle of violence that has existed between these two parties."

With the change to the law, the cycle of abuse could end with felony charges brought on the second or subsequent offense.  "A lot of times it's because we recognize it is a case where we do need to break this cycle, we do need to stop this perpetrator, or there's a potential for greater violence," he said.  He says that's when victims are put in the hot seat - forced to say, 'enough is enough,' and send the abuser to prison.  "The abuser himself learns how to abuse, and how far he can go," said Smith.  "In the process, the victim is isolated from friends and family, and they sometimes are manipulated psychologically to feel like it's their fault."

In Lawton last year, 240 people were arrested on domestic abuse offenses.  Recently a man in Oklahoma was charged with killing his girlfriend and four children.  State lawmakers say they hope changes to the law - including counseling for convicts - will prevent domestic violence from occurring in the future.  One lawmaker even has proposed making domestic abuse an automatic felony on the first offense.  Prosecutors say they hope to have more flexibility to determine charges on a case-by-case basis.