Panel rejects Haley’s plan to go after abusers

Gov. Nikki Haley in January announced plans to seek $19 million to hire more prosecutors, including 39 who would focus on handling domestic violence cases in South Carolina courts.

COLUMBIA — Members of the S.C. House of Representatives have snubbed Gov. Nikki Haley’s plan to hire 39 more prosecutors for domestic violence cases in the state’s lower courts, disappointing advocates who’d hoped to see a stronger allocation of resources toward victims of abuse.

House budget writers last week failed to include the $2.9 million needed to fund the initiative in their proposed budget plan. It was a key recommendation of the governor’s domestic violence task force that seeks to reduce instances of domestic violence in South Carolina, ranked No. 1 in the nation for the rate of women murdered by men.

The courtroom prosecutors are needed, advocates say, because South Carolina is one of just three states in the country where police officers — and not attorneys — are called upon to prosecute domestic violence crimes in the courtroom. The other states are Virginia and New Hampshire.

“It’s not fair for the officers and it’s not fair for the crime victims,” said 4th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, an advocate of expanding the prosecutor role in the state and also chairman of the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination.

“We need our law enforcement officers to keep us safe, not to be arguing some legal nuance against a seasoned defense attorney in a courtroom somewhere,” Stone added. “And the victims need to have someone professional arguing on their behalf.”

Haley announced the proposal in January during a Statehouse press conference. In all, she recommended spending $19 million to pay for about 144 additional prosecutors statewide, three Circuit Court judges and staff members, and 88 public defenders.

The move would also reduce prosecutors’ case loads from an average of 376 cases per attorney to 280, she said, and guarantee a dedicated prosecutor in every county. Allendale, Saluda and McCormick counties do not have a dedicated prosecutor, Haley said at the time.

Stone said most of that proposed spending is included in the House budget, but the funds for domestic violence prosecutors didn’t make the cut.

That was disappointing news to advocates such as Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council and a member of the domestic violence task force. She said the state should be able to fund the initiative, particularly since lawmakers had an additional $1.2 billion in new revenue and unspent cash available when they returned in January.

“It seems like surely we can afford to do that,” she said. “Law enforcement does the best they can with this, but they are not prosecutors.”

Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House’s budget-writing Law enforcement and Criminal Justice subcommittee, said the omission is not about the money. He plans to add the money for CDV prosecutors next year for fiscal year 2017-18. But first, courts have to determine where the need is, he said. The House’s budget-writing panel approved $7.8 million for new prosecutors, just not specifically designated for CDV cases.

“There will be a flood of new prosecutors,” Pitts said. “But you can only hire so much at a time. We don’t need to put the cart before the horse.”

The state’s roughly $7.5 billion budget is not expected to hit the House floor until the week of March 21. If it leaves that chamber without cash for CDV prosecutors, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, said he’ll push the Senate’s budget-writing panel to address the issue. Martin was the author of the bill that reformed the state’s criminal domestic violence laws in 2015, including a partial gun ban.

“It’s something we’ve got to make a priority if we’re going to make a difference,” Martin said.

The state doesn’t track the outcome of charges in magistrate and municipal courts, though they handle the lion’s share of domestic violence cases. One state commission sampling found that more than half of the 5,329 domestic violence cases that landed in magistrate courts between July 2012 and June 2013 were ultimately dismissed.

South Carolina has ranked among the nation’s deadliest states for women for nearly two decades, largely while the Legislature ignored the death toll documented in 2014 in The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till Death Do Us Part.” The series revealed that over the past decade more than 300 women have died in South Carolina at the hands of a man who once loved them. That’s about one killing every 12 days.

In a recent survey, some 62 percent of the law enforcement agencies that responded indicated that they had to send officers to handle domestic violence cases in magistrate or municipal courts because prosecutors weren’t available, Stone said.

That takes police officers off the streets and away from their jobs of protecting people, and it leaves victims without an advocate trained in courtroom practices, he said.