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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.