COLUMBIA - Criminal domestic violence offenders may face additional time in jail if a bill making its way through a House subcommittee becomes law.
The bill was introduced by state representative and lieutenant governor hopeful Bakari Sellers and Rep. Peter McCoy, R-Charleston in the House Criminal Laws Subcommittee on Thursday. The subcommittee did not vote on the bill and adjourned discussion for session after the meeting ran late.
Several notable changes would be made to the state's criminal domestic violence law through this bill, including requiring a first-time offender found guilty to spend up to 180 days in jail, instead of up 30 days as the current law requires. It would also require an offender found guilty to undergo a domestic violence intervention program.
"Something has to be done," said Sellers, D- Bamberg. "In the last decade we've led the country. It has to stop."
Indeed South Carolina ranks No. 1 in rate of women murdered by men - more than double the national average - according to the Violence Policy Center, a national nonprofit. Of the homicides in which weapons were used, 57 percent of women were shot and killed with guns in 2011, said the report, which was released in September 2013.
Officials could not pinpoint why South Carolina has made the center's list of top 10 states every year during the past 10 years. Jeff Moore, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association, theorized it's a cultural issue.
"I don't know why, other than there has to be some kind of cultural acceptance to domestic violence," Moore said. "We've accepted that it's OK for a man to beat up a woman."
Moore added he has never seen a law that changes people's behavior. These abusers don't care about how long they may be in jail, he said. But through mandatory treatment, instead of just penalties, there could a different result.
"I think it's a cultural issue and I think there's an educational solution," Moore added.
The executive director of Safe Harbor, Becky Callaham, agreed with Moore's theory. Safe Harbor provides shelter and counseling to victims of domestic violence.
Callaham said the topic is still very taboo in some areas of the state, especially when some faith communities are telling women to stick it out, to be submissive.
"I think this bill will send a message to South Carolina that we acknowledge that we that have a problem here, we care about this problem and that we are working on it," she said during the meeting. "This is the decade of domestic violence for South Carolina."
She added that there aren't a lot of resources for victims of domestic violence in the Palmetto State, and that there are gaps in the system that is meant to protect them.
Sellers said he hoped the bill would help fill in some of those gaps. During Thursday's meeting, he expressed frustration after learning two of his colleagues in the House wished to offer amendments to the bill, which delayed voting on the measure until next week.
"This is an issue that needs attention that we have not paid attention to for far too long," Sellers said. "I don't mean to heighten the situation or use any puffery, but each day that goes by that we do not take action there is another woman whose life is in danger."
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