Working through the Clemency Project, 3L Kendra Saathoff Testifies on a Sentencing Bill That She Helped Draft
The proposed legislation seeks to provide a means of reducing the sentences of abuse, sexual assault, and trafficking victims who commit crimes as a result of their abuse
Kendra Saathoff, 3L, has dedicated herself to supporting survivors of domestic violence. She’s now asking Minnesota lawmakers to join her by passing a bill that could reduce the sentences of victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault or sex trafficking who commit crimes as a result of their abuse.
Saathoff and Murray recently testified in favor of the bill during a virtual hearing before the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Finance and Policy Committee of the state House of Representatives.
Under the bill, sponsored by Rep. Athena Hollins, DFL-St. Paul, judges could impose shorter sentences for the offenses abuse victims commit. Another provision would enable those previously convicted to petition for resentencing.
“At the heart of this bill is the understanding that experiences of domestic abuse, sexual violence and sex trafficking can result in criminal conduct by victims,” Saathoff told committee members, who referred the bill, HF3856, to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.
Seeking support and input from community leaders, public defenders and county attorneys among other has “really challenged me to get outside my comfort zone” of the classroom and the nonprofit organizations where she has worked, Saathoff said.
“It’s reinforced my commitment to serving survivors of domestic violence, listening to their stories and understanding how deeply our criminal legal system impacts certain people disproportionately,” Saathoff said in an interview. “It’s been really helpful in forcing me to be a strong advocate for people who I know are incarcerated for reasons that stem from their status as a survivor.”
Saathoff, who is from Seattle, majored in sociology and Hispanic studies at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington. She volunteered to support survivors of domestic violence through her undergraduate years and worked at a nonprofit for survivors for a couple of years before beginning classes at the Law School. As a 2L, Saathoff interned at Tubman, a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps people who have experienced relationship violence, sexual assault and other trauma.
To prepare for her testimony, Saathoff drew from a report that she and Murray wrote about the bill.
“Kendra’s dogged and intelligent embrace of this initiative was impressive,” Murray said. “She spent countless hours not just honing the bill’s language but identifying stakeholders across the state to create a coalition to support it and convening dozens of meetings with our coalition partners.”
Katie Kramer, policy director of Violence Free Minnesota, representing more than 90 programs advocating on behalf of domestic and sexual abuse victims statewide, said Saathoff has been instrumental in getting the bill off the ground.
“She’s really led the drafting of the bill and the building of the coalition around the state of folks who are involved and are contributing their expertise to making sure it’s something that we can all get behind,” said Kramer, who also testified in support of the act. “We’re grateful for all the incredible work that Kendra’s put into making this bill something tangible and hopefully something that will pass in our state.”
HF3856 is similar to a New York , the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, adopted in 2019. Saathoff researched the New York law and wrote a note about it for the Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality, where she is an editorial board member.
Modeled on a New York Law
HF3856 is similar to a New York law, the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act, adopted in 2019. Saathoff researched the New York law and wrote a note about it for the Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality, where she is an editorial board member.
Saathoff said Murray, her faculty advisor, read the note and “recognized a great nexus between my research, the New York bill and her client,” Samantha Heiges. A Clemency Clinic client, Heiges was serving a guideline sentence of 25 years for drowning her newborn baby,f earing that if she didn’t her abusive boyfriend would act on his threats to kill them both.
“The New York Act became the impetus to implement a similar and even better remedy here in Minnesota,” Murray said.
The Minnesota Board of Pardons granted Heiges clemency in December, freeing her after she had served about half of her sentence. Heiges, who also testified in favor of the bill, said she would have been in prison for another four years without the board’s action.
“There are others just like me who committed crimes in the context of and as a result of their experience of an abusive relationship, so I ask you to pass this bill because it will give second chances to so many more like me,” Heiges testified.
‘A Great Step in the Right Direction’
The bill aligns with Violence Free Minnesota’s goal of supporting justice-involved victim-survivors who also are defendants or who become involved in the criminal legal system, Kramer said. Up to 94% of incarcerated women have experienced domestic and sexual violence before going to prison.
“We think this legislation is a great step in the right direction, to ensure that we have a trauma-informed and compassionate response to justice-involved survivors whose involvement in the criminal legal system often is directly or indirectly tied to the abuse that they have experienced,” Kramer said.
Saathoff told committee members that the most innovative element of the bill was its resentencing provision. It’s likely to raise concerns for some but it also makes the act equitable.
Minnesota was the first state to adopt guidelines to ensure uniform and proportionate sentences, Saathoff testified, and the state’s incarceration rates are consistently among the country’s lowest.
“This bill is another opportunity for Minnesota to demonstrate leadership and humanity in the area of sentencing reform, a cause that has support among diverse stakeholders and across party lines,” Saathoff said in concluding her testimony.
Saathoff has family from Minnesota and appreciated the Law School’s focus on public interest law. Now interning for a Seattle nonprofit, she hopes to pursue her passion for working with survivors of domestic abuse professionally after graduation.
“The Law School really helps public interest students know that their work is just as important and makes sure that we feel supported,” Saathoff said.
Todd Nelson is a freelance writer based in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.