COLUMBIA — Top lawmakers, lawmen, prosecutors, victims and victim advocates joined state Attorney General Alan Wilson at a Statehouse rally Tuesday to push reforming South Carolina’s domestic violence laws, starting with tougher penalties for abusers.
Among those jammed into a Statehouse rotunda for the event included new House Speaker Jay Lucas, in his first day on the job, and the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman, among other legislators kicking off the General Assembly’s new session with a vow to effect change.
“This is the year we will make a difference. This is the year we finally will pass a comprehensive bill,” Lucas said.
The rally came in the wake of The Post and Courier’s investigative series, “Till Death Do Us Part,” which revealed that more than 300 women had been killed in domestic violence in South Carolina over the past decade, dying at a rate of about one every 12 days while the state did little to stop the bloodshed. Last year alone, a dozen measures to combat domestic violence died in the Legislature due to lack of action.
“Our laws reflect our values. And our values are not adequately represented in the current framework,” Wilson told the newspaper before the event he dubbed a “Call to Action.”
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon and North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers were among local officials who traveled to the capital to support efforts to change South Carolina’s status as one of the nation’s deadliest states for women. Also on hand to show support were contingents of solicitors, sheriffs, Highway Patrol officials and police chiefs from across South Carolina, as well as State Law Enforcement Division Director Mark Keel and his predecessor, Robert Stewart.
“For years we have asked for action,” Mullen said. “Yet for years we’ve seen people murdered and children continue the cycle.”
For the first time, life-size silhouettes used to represent murdered domestic violence victims at the annual Silent Witness ceremony appeared at a different kind of event, this one aimed at saving future lives. Georgetown victim advocates Shanda Robinson and Alma Sierra were among those holding up the silhouettes. They applauded a Senate bill that would stiffen sentences for perpetrators who abuse victims while children are present or when they know victims are pregnant.
“A lot of times victims get counseling, but the indirect victims are ignored,” Sierra said of the children involved.
Those on hand supported a tiered system of charges that would give prosecutors and judges more options. A bill they support calls for:
Domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature would be considered a serious violent felony punishable with up to 20 years in prison. Using a deadly weapon and strangulation would be aggravating factors.
First-degree criminal domestic violence would be a felony punishable by up to 10 years and would encompass incidents in which victims suffer great bodily injury.
Second-degree criminal domestic violence would encompass moderate bodily injury and be a misdemeanor punishable with up to three years.
Third-degree would be a misdemeanor punishable with up to 90 days.
“We need this legislation,” Mullen urged. “We need that tiered system.”
Today, a first criminal domestic violence conviction is a misdemeanor punishable with a maximum 30 days in jail. Many abusers don’t get that. Plus, current state sentencing laws emphasize how many times an abuser has been convicted rather than the severity of attacks.
However, under the proposed new penalties, abusers would face tougher sentences based on the severity of abuse, and charges would be elevated for repeat offenders.
“We need zero tolerance for repeat offenders and to give police and prosecutors on the front lines a number of tools and appropriate punishments,” Wilson told The Post and Courier.
Republican Sen. Larry Martin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, proposed a major bill calling for comprehensive domestic violence reform. On Tuesday afternoon, it passed the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on criminal domestic violence. The bill could go to the full committee as early as Thursday and make a rapid move to the Senate floor from there, Martin said.
“There is no reason this bill shouldn’t be front and center in the Senate very, very soon,” Martin said. Gesturing to the silhouettes, he added: “Let’s end this silhouette parade we do every year. We can do it.”
A more controversial provision in Martin’s bill would bar those convicted of domestic violence from possessing guns.
It promises to be a tough sell in the Republican-controlled Legislature. But in a separate interview, Wilson voiced tacit support. “I personally have no opposition to keeping firearms from violent offenders,” Wilson said.
However, he added that he doesn’t want to take a constitutional right from those involved in minor incidents. He also doesn’t want to require that police pursue everyone “with a check on your name” to confiscate their guns.
“I would never be in favor of government just confiscating,” Wilson said. “Plus that puts mandates on local law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices. What I am in favor of is giving front-line law enforcement and prosecutors the ability to prevent violent criminals, violent offenders from having access to firearms for a period of time.”
The gun issue didn’t come up at Tuesday’s rally. Instead, speakers focused on pushing for tougher penalties and addressing cultural issues that have allowed abuse to fester in the privacy of homes.
“It’s time to no longer accept domestic violence as a tradition in our communities,” said Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “Let’s not waste this momentum that has built.”
And if lawmakers fail to toughen laws? Christan Rainey, a local firefighter whose stepfather killed his mother and all four of his siblings, reminded those on hand of the deadly consequences.
“The same thing that happened to me is going to happen to someone else,” Rainey said, choking up.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.