If the state doesn’t challenge the attitudes and behaviors that perpetuate abuse, South Carolina women will continue to die at an alarming rate.

They don't have to.

Part seven


Enough is enough

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A chorus of voices that includes police, pastors and politicians, has condemned South Carolina’s grisly record of violence toward women. Their words, however, haven’t translated into much action.

South Carolina has made little progress in addressing domestic violence in the year since it was ranked No. 1 in the nation for the rate of women killed by men.

Domestic violence is an ingrained, complicated and generational problem in the Palmetto State. But that doesn’t mean it cannot be solved.

To produce this series, The Post and Courier reviewed dozens of reports and studies, examined efforts underway in other states and interviewed more than 100 police officers, lawyers, judges, victims, counselors, victim advocates, politicians, clergy and more. This endeavor produced a number of concrete proposals aimed at curbing the bloodshed.

Some proposed fixes would cost money, but most could be accomplished with existing resources and some revisions to the state’s laws. What is really needed is leadership from top elected officials, commitment from each of the state’s counties and the participation of an engaged public.

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North Charleston police officer Adrian Besancon takes a man into custody in early June after his live-in girlfriend accused him of assaulting her. The charge was later dismissed after the woman opted not to testify against him. A sampling of state courts found that more than half of the 5,300 misdemeanor domestic violence cases studied between 2012 and 2013 were eventually dropped before trial. Glenn Smith/Staff

Problem: Domestic abusers face little actual jail time on a first or second conviction. A first-time offender faces a maximum of 30 days in jail for beating a loved one, about the same penalty he would receive for shoplifting or trespassing. Police, prosecutors and judges contend this doesn’t serve as an effective deterrent and allows abusers to return home at a time when the victim is at the greatest risk for retribution.

Solution: Increase the maximum penalty for first-time criminal domestic violence convictions to a year in prison, bringing South Carolina in line with states such as Georgia and Alabama. Legislation was proposed last year to make that change and to increase the maximum penalty for a second offense from one to three years. Those bills, however, died in legislative committees without coming to a vote. Lawmakers have pledged to reintroduce the measures when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

House Speaker Bobby Harrell also told The Post and Courier he plans to appoint a committee to study potential changes to the state’s domestic violence laws.


Problem

Some 65 percent of domestic murders of women in South Carolina are committed with guns, but the state has no provisions for removing firearms from the homes of convicted abusers. The state requires that judges inform those convicted of domestic violence that federal law prevents them from possessing guns. But the state has no mechanism to ensure offenders comply with that restriction. About one in five gun-related domestic violence killings over the past decade were committed by people who had been barred under federal law from owning or possessing firearms.

Solution

Enact a state law that mirrors the federal prohibition and prohibits gun possession by those convicted of criminal domestic violence or facing an active restraining order. The state also could authorize law enforcement to remove weapons from the homes in question.

More than a dozen states already bar possession of firearms by domestic violence offenders. More than two-thirds of the states and the federal government prohibit firearm possession by abusers who are subject to domestic protective orders.

Legislation to bring South Carolina in line with these states died in the past session in committees without a vote taking place.


Problem

The state has no system in place for assessing which abusers represent the greatest danger for their victims and for taking steps to protect those women. A handful of communities, including Spartanburg, have adopted some form of screening, but no coordinated approach exists statewide to bring police, prosecutors and others together to identify high-risk cases and take action.

Solution

Adopt a statewide lethality screening similar to that pioneered in the state of Maryland. When responding to domestic violence calls, officers use a checklist of factors, including the presence of weapons and evidence of strangulation, to determine which women face the greatest danger.

The state also could adopt a Massachusetts model in which teams of police, prosecutors, probation agents and others regularly review cases to identify dangerous abusers and formulate action plans. Among the options at their disposal is jailing offenders until trial if the courts deem them a sufficient threat. This defuses volatile situations and protects the women against further abuse.

Areas where these models have been employed have experienced sizable drops in domestic killings.

The city of North Charleston is among 12 communities across the country under consideration to receive training in these methods.

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Newburyport, Mass., and several other communities use electronic monitoring to ensure domestic offenders stay away from the women they are accused of assaulting. Violations can result in an immediate trip back to jail. File/Wade Spees/Staff)

Problem

Restraining orders lack teeth for enforcement, leaving it up to victims to alert authorities when an abuser has crossed the line. The onus is placed on victims to obtain a protective order from Family Court, to watch for potential violations and to have the order on hand in the event police need to be called.

Solution

Require electronic monitoring for those facing restraining orders in pending criminal domestic violence cases, paid for by fees assessed on the offender. High-risk teams in Massachusetts map “hot zones” where offenders can’t venture, and police are dispatched when a violation occurs. Those who are free on bail are quickly jailed for violating their bonds.

The state also could create a statewide database that police can access to determine if a restraining order is in place when they respond to a domestic call.

Penalties for violating orders could be increased beyond the 30-day maximum sentence, with jail an immediate option for those who ignore restrictions while free on bail.

Legislation was submitted this past session in the House and Senate to ease the hurdles for victims by allowing them to petition for protective orders at the time of bond hearings. The bill died in committee without coming to a vote.


Problem

South Carolina has escalating penalties for repeat violators of its domestic violence laws, but too many gaps in the system prevent those enhanced punishments from kicking in. For example, magistrate and municipal courts frequently fail to report misdemeanor convictions to the state, leading to repeat offenders being charged multiple times for first-offense criminal domestic violence. This allows the abuser to continue to face the minimum sentence available.

Solution

Push these summary courts to report the disposition of all misdemeanor domestic violence cases to the State Law Enforcement Division so convictions register on offenders’ rap sheets. Eliminating confusion over the outcome of prior charges reduces the chances of abusers being charged again and again as first-time offenders.

The state also could eliminate a provision allowing offenders to expunge first-offense convictions for domestic violence after five years.

Also in need of review is a law that wipes the slate clean and allows abusers to be charged as first-time offenders 10 years after their initial conviction. Such loopholes allow abusers to avoid accountability for repeat offenses.

The state also could consider establishing a public registry of repeat offenders similar to its sex offender registry, as the parents of a woman slain in Lancaster County last year have proposed.

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Police tape surrounds a James Island home where 25-year-old Tasha Lucia was beaten and stabbed to death on Feb. 12, 2013. South Carolina lacks a team to study such homicides for lessons that could be used to prevent future killings. File/Paul Zoeller/Staff

Problem

The state lacks a designated team tasked with studying domestic homicides in an in-depth, comprehensive manner to look for trends, commonalities and ways to prevent future bloodshed. This presents a missed opportunity for the state to pinpoint ways to increase safety for victims and accountability for abusers.

Solution

Create a fatality review team, as 41 other states have done, to study domestic homicides for potential lessons. In North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and a host of other states, these teams include representatives from a variety of backgrounds, such as police, prosecutors, probation agents, mental health counselors, victim advocates and more. The teams often report holes in the safety net.

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Women who leave abusive relationships often have to bring their children with them to shelters. At My Sister's House, a Charleston area shelter, children have a playroom. File/Paul Zoeller/Staff

Problem

Domestic violence is a generational problem passed down through families. Children witness abuse in the home and mimic that behavior, growing up with a distorted view of how relationships function and often falling into abusive relationships themselves.

Solution

Adopt statewide a Charleston police approach of designating a victim advocate to follow up with children in homes where domestic violence arrests have occurred. The advocate looks for signs of abusive behavior emerging in the children at home or school and attempts to connect them with counseling and other services.

Schools and churches could be encouraged to work with nonprofit children’s centers to explore ways to teach youth about the importance of healthy relationships and nonviolent approaches to resolving conflicts.

A 2011 study of Charleston County domestic violence incidents indicated law enforcement officers seldom charged abusers for subjecting children to violence in the home. The study also indicated that many officers were confused by how child endangerment laws applied in these situations. More training for police has been suggested as a way to hold offenders more accountable.

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A woman in a 2006 assault in Charleston County shows her injuries to an investigator at a crime scene. Properly documenting domestic assaults can help prosecutors win convictions, as it did in this case, where an 18-year sentence was handed down. PROVIDED

Problem

Failure by law enforcement to properly document elements of abuse in incident reports can hamper prosecution when cases go to court. Incomplete reports also leave other officers unaware of the bigger picture when responding to future calls at these homes.

Solution

Adopt a statewide standardized investigative incident form for criminal domestic violence. Train officers to fully describe in incident reports the nature of injuries to each woman, the history of domestic abuse calls to the home and past charges against abusers. This builds a record to help track escalating violence in the home. Officers should note the presence of children to allow for the possibility of additional charges or intervention.

The format on statewide incident reports could be slightly altered to include a box for officers to check if strangulation was involved — a key indicator of mounting violence and a potentially lethal situation. This would be useful for both tracking and research purposes.


Problem

Strangulation is not properly addressed in the state’s domestic violence laws. A 2011 study of Charleston County incident reports found that about 60 percent of all domestic strangling episodes resulted in misdemeanor charges.

Solution

Add strangulation to the list of offenses that can trigger a felony charge of high and aggravated criminal domestic violence.

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat, sponsored legislation this past session to amend the felony law to include strangulation. That bill died in committee without coming to a vote.

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A Mount Pleasant woman speaks to Charleston County Magistrate Linda Lombard at her husband’s April bail hearing on charges of aggravated domestic violence. Brad Nettles/Staff

Problem

The state’s bond hearing system makes it too easy for abusers to quickly get out of jail without a cooling off period to discourage further violence. On a first-offense charge, an abuser generally has to put down no more than $250 to secure his release. Some are simply set free on their own recognizance.

Solution

Adopt better screening of offenders to pinpoint those who present the most danger to their victims. Before bail is set, prosecutors and police should make sure judges have an offender’s full criminal history to review as well as pertinent reports about past episodes of violence.

The state also could consider raising bail limits for domestic violence offenders to give the courts greater leverage over their behavior.

Legislation submitted in the past session in the House called for ending the practice of releasing domestic violence suspects on personal recognizance bonds. That bill, however, died in committee without coming to a vote.


Problem

South Carolina limits those covered by criminal domestic violence laws to spouses, ex-spouses, people with a child in common or men and women who are or were living together. This definition overlooks a large segment of intimate partners who are victimized.

Solution

Expand state law to cover all intimate partners, which would include present and former boyfriends and girlfriends and same-sex couples. Other states have moved in this direction. North Carolina, for example, extends protections to members of the opposite sex who are dating. Colorado goes further, extending protections to same-sex partners.


Problem

The state doesn’t track the outcome of misdemeanor domestic violence charges handled in municipal and magistrate courts, though those represent the overwhelming majority of domestic cases filed each year. The state does collect information on felony domestic charges but doesn’t publish all of that information. This leaves the courts and the public in the dark as to how effectively these cases are being prosecuted and decided across the state, and which areas might need additional resources.

Solution

Require that the state Judicial Department collect and analyze the dispositions of summary court cases to determine how many criminal domestic violence charges result in convictions and what average sentences are being applied. The Judicial Department could more readily use the data already collected from felony cases to present a fuller picture of how these cases are handled in the state’s General Sessions courts.


Problem

South Carolina deals with domestic violence primarily as a criminal justice problem, devoting few resources to education and prevention.

Solution

Many experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, view it as “a serious, preventable public health problem” that affects about 5.3 million women in the United States annually. The center’s goal is to stop intimate partner violence before it begins. It promotes programs to encourage healthy behaviors in relationships, and efforts to teach young people skills for dating and other relationships that can prevent violence. South Carolina should introduce such classes in public schools and launch a public health campaign, modeled on anti-smoking efforts, to change the attitudes that breed domestic violence.