Deep Dive: Why Doesn’t Minnesota Have a Survivors Justice Act?

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In 2022, Stephanie Clark, 31, was sentenced to more than 25 years in prison after shooting and killing her boyfriend, Don’Juan Butler, in their Maple Grove apartment in March 2020. He had threatened to kill her and her five-year-old son, after a long history of abuse. She told investigators that he punched her in the stomach and back earlier that day because he was upset that she had talked to a man in a store.

Stephanie Clark

She went to pick up her son. As the Star Tribune reported, after they returned he said, “Wait for [your son] to go to bed. I’m going to break your ribs.” Clark picked up a gun and shot at him eight times. Butler fled to another room, and she picked up a second loaded gun in the apartment and shot him five times, which killed him.

Clark’s case will be reconsidered after the Minnesota Court of Appeal ruled that the jury, which deliberated four hours before deciding on her guilt, was given an incorrect definition of “imminent” danger — mistakenly claiming it needed to be “immediate” danger. Clark had testified in her trial that Butler had held a loaded gun to her head that day, but not in the moment she shot him.

As Clark told Judge Peter Cahill at sentencing, “I knew he was going to kill me … All I could think about was not being able to protect my son. All I can really remember is feeling scared and pulling the trigger over and over.”

The Star Tribune reported that Cahill told Clark he did not find her to be a credible witness, with the only corroboration of domestic abuse being a “bruise,” and that even if Butler had abused Clark, “he was not the aggressor” and the prosecutor was likely correct in judging that Clark had simply been angry and snapped.

Cahill also was the presiding judge at the trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd. In August 2021, Minnesota Women’s Press featured an interview with Mary Moriarty — previously a public defender and newly elected Hennepin County Attorney General — related in part to how the judge did not seem to understand the impact of trauma. In his sentencing comments for Chauvin, Cahill dismissed the impact on people — including children on the street — who witnessed the murder.

Moriarty added in the 2021 article, “Working in the field of law for 30 years, I think about how judges, prosecutors, and probation officers don’t understand the field of trauma. We don’t have enough good treatment programs or counseling.”

Clark’s case is common — the victim of abuse being arrested rather than receiving supportive services to prevent homicide by victim or offender.

In Iowa, for example, in June 2020, a 15-year-old girl stabbed Zachary Brooks, age 37, more than 30 times after she was forced multiple times to have sex with him. The prosecution did not dispute that she was sexually assaulted and trafficked. She was ordered to pay $150,000 in restitution to the Brooks family — he was the married father of three — and sentenced to five years of probation at a structured women’s center. Eventually she fled the probation center, was arrested several days later, and, now 18, faces up to 20 years in prison; she is awaiting sentencing.

The man who trafficked the teenager to Brooks and other older men for money has not been charged.

Criminalization of Survivors

In our ongoing conversations with grassroots advocates and gender-based violence survivors, the lack of accountability in the legal system — the propensity to punish rather than offer healing for trauma — is a noticeable gap in policy and funding.

Changemakers Alliance, the new solutions-and-action extension of Minnesota Women’s Press, hosted a March 25 event focused on gender-based violence. Playwright Deneal Trueblood-Lynch indicated that after she was incarcerated for assaulting her 12-year-old daughter’s abuser — triggered by her own childhood history of abuse —she felt helpless, separated from her daughter, who was then suffering the trauma of assault on top of having her mother incarcerated.

Said Trueblood-Lynch: “I’m a survivor of a childhood trauma. And I took that trauma, and I buried it inside. As I matured, that trauma matured inside of me. I was able to put a smile on my face and function normally for quite some time. I became a mother, I became a wife, I became a role model. It was as close to normal as I thought I could get. I graduated high school. I worked some really good jobs. One day, I came home and learned that my daughter had been sexually violated. I had what they said was tunnel vision — I couldn’t see whether or not he was my perpetrator or my daughter’s because I had buried my secret and the past met up with the present. I did a lot of harm to my victim. I was sentenced to 57 months at Shakopee Correctional Center.

“While I was there, this question — even to this day — comes to the surface: How can incarcerating me solve or cure that old childhood trauma? Now I’m adding the trauma of being incarcerated on top of that trauma … and having to deal with the stress of my daughter’s trauma. There were no doctors in there I could talk to, to start to unpack the situation.

“I realized it would have to be me to start to unpack things. I found my purpose. And my purpose was to unpack the secret, because there were other women surrounding me while I was incarcerated who were dealing with the same issue. I wrote a play called “Secrets.” It’s about my lived experience. I’m finding out that the more I perform it, there are so many people who share that same trauma and are sitting with their secret.”

Changing the Penchant for Punishment Instead of Healing

Artika Roller, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA), talked at the event about the policy work she did with others for the pioneering Safe Harbor Law in Minnesota. Prior to that, even underage victims of sex trafficking were treated as criminals and jailed rather than provided treatment services. Other states have since followed suit.

Roller cited a 1991 study in New York that found that Black women were convicted much more frequently of killing their abusers than white women who killed assailants. “Black and brown women are more likely to be criminalized and prosecuted and incarcerated while trying to navigate and survive conditions of violence,” she said. “There is a lot that goes into the stereotyping and victimization of Black and brown women, the expectations of sexuality. There is a lot that we need to unpack as a society to ensure safety.”

Roller says the organization is advocating around greater Crime Victim Service funding. “We have not received an increase in funding in over eight years for crime victim services,” she said. “Locally and in our rural communities, people are leaving the field as advocates to work at Walmart, where the benefits and pay are higher. That is unexcuseable. Those people with lived experience [who are strong victim service providers sometimes] work two or three jobs while carrying the weight of this direct service.”

Said CeMarr Peterson of the Link, “Instead of being criminalized for being assaulted, being raped, being sold, [when survivors are] getting the things they need,” and are supported with work as advocates for other victims, “it works.”

(l-r) CeMarr Peterson, The Link, and Artika Roller, MNCASA, at the Changemakers Alliance discussion about gender-based violence

Back Story

In 1985, incarcerated women in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison in New York, started a movement to lift up the rights of survivors of domestic violence who had been convicted of crimes. This was not long after advocates were better able to convince law enforcement that domestic violence was a crime rather than a private family matter.

A legislative hearing was held inside the prison, where women provided testimony that connected their experience of domestic violence to their criminal charge, and suggested how to respond in a more helpful way. This Coalition for Women Prisoners led in 2009 to the launch of the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act. Pushback from district attorneys expressed concern that this legislation would fail to consider “innocent victims.”

Ten years after the Survivors Justice Act movement began in New York, its state legislature passed the Act, in 2019, and it was signed into law.

2022: Survivors Justice Act Receives a Hearing in Minnesota

In 2022, Minnesota Rep. Athena Hollins authored HF3856, a bill that would have offered an option for judges to depart from standard sentencing guidelines if a person traumatized by gender-based violence was convicted of a crime. It is similar to the Veterans Restorative Justice Act, a bill that was signed into Minnesota law in 2021 that gives leniency on sentencing guidelines for veterans convicted of a crime.

The bill received a hearing in March 2022 by the House committee for Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy.

In support for the Survivors Justice Act, Samantha Heiges testified that she was 19 when she gave birth in a bathtub, more than a decade earlier, and let the newborn drown because her abusive boyfriend said he would kill both of them if she did not. A few days later, Heiges attempted suicide. She kept the secret for several years until she confided in someone, who called the police. She was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years. She had served half that term when a clemency board granted her a second chance.

After her release, Heiges said, she was able to participate in restorative justice, get an education, become a conflict coach and service dog trainer, and become a “best possible mother” to her living daughter, who was born a year before she entered prison. Heiges said she was grateful to the board of pardons and sentencing judge for believing in her and recognizing how an abusive relationship had impacted her decisions. She said she hoped the Survivors Justice Act would give “second chances to so many like me.”

Nicole Matthews (“Spirit Bird Woman”), director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition, testified that she was part of a team that interviewed 62 women who had been incarcerated at the Shakopee prison, where nearly all of them had a history of relationship abuse. One woman had told them she was 10 when she was molested and started to run away from home. Another was a pre-teen when she was sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend and was told by family not to tell others. Another had an abusive boyfriend who brought stolen goods into her car; she was charged because it was her car. Of these incarcerated individuals, 75 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, or depression.

“Criminalization should never be the penalty for victimization,” Matthews testified. “Survivors deserve to have the support to find healing and return to their children and families. The Survivors Justice Act is a great step in that direction.”

Rep. Cedrick Frazier (DFL–New Hope) said he appreciated that the bill had a retroactive piece, because of the inequities in the system that leads many low-income and people of color to be convicted of trauma-impacted crimes. He said it would be unfair to those already unjustly treated by the system to continue to suffer instead of getting the help they need outside of prison. “It is vitally important to fix harms from the past for a more equitable system,” he said.

Rep. Marion O’Neill (GOP–Maple Lake) said she had visited Shakopee prison several times, where many women had come from traumatized backgrounds and were dealing with addictions, some of them having committed murder. She expressed concern at the hearing that these women might not be ready to re-enter society. Would they have the coping techniques to enable them to be safe if returned to the community?

Katie Kramer, policy director for Violence Free Minnesota, said in response that “we are on the same page” in wanting to see adequate support, therapy, and investment in community-based programs so that people can be successful in dealing with trauma.

Hollins closed the discussion by indicating that there have been mistakes made in the past about sentencing guidelines and there is no shame in paying attention to the question of “how do we fix this and restore these individuals to ensure they are contributing members of society?”

The committee voted 11 yes and 8 no to refer the bill to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law committee. The people who voted against it were O’Neill, Brian Johnson (GOP–North Branch), Matt Grossell (GOP–Bemidji), Eric Lucero (GOP–Albertville), Patricia Mueller (GOP­–Austin), Paul Novotny (GOP–Elk River), John Poston (GOP–Cass/Todd/Wadena Counties), and Donald Raleigh (GOP–Blaine).

Although the bill was referred to the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law committee in 2022, it did not receive another hearing. It has not been re-introduced in 2023, although advocates are working to create another version of the bill for consideration.

If you would like to be part of building awareness about this legislation and what it would do for survivors, signal your interest here: We will connect people statewide who are interested in discussing next steps.

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