House takes needed stand vs. CDV

Chester County officer Diane Watson, Bridget Musteata and Horry County officer Kristen Albrecht with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Victim Advocate Association join Attorney General Alan Wilson at rally for domestic violence reform in the rotunda of the South Carolina Statehouse Tuesday January 13, 2015. (Grace Beahm/Staff)

The criminal domestic violence bill passed by the House on Thursday offers South Carolina realistic hope for becoming a safer place. It also offers hope that legislators can, after all, compromise and get things done.

Early last week, it still appeared that enacting a criminal domestic violence law might not happen despite widespread pleas from across the state. The Senate’s bill was stronger than the House bill, and neither seemed inclined to compromise.

But it now seems likely that the two chambers will be able to arrive at a bill to send to Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature. The House approved a compromise proposal — a solid framework for a conference committee to use this week in producing a final bill that both the Senate and the House can support.

The House bill isn’t perfect. The Senate’s initial bill was tougher on prosecuting cases of CDV and on keeping guns out of the hands of domestic abusers.

But the House did come quite a way from its early refusal to take guns from offenders. The revised bill would prohibit offenders from having guns for three years on lesser charges and 10 years on more serious violations. The most serious offenders would lose their right to have guns for life.

Federal law prohibits felons and domestic violence offenders from having guns — a more fitting punishment — but the law is rarely enforced in South Carolina, and the House was unwilling to go that far.

Another disappointment in the House bill is that prosecutors and judges would be allowed to plead CDV charges down to assault and battery, therefore avoiding the gun ban altogether. And judges can choose not to take away a batterer’s guns for low-level offenses.

Those are troubling loopholes.

But victims advocates say the bill is a tremendous improvement over the way the state currently handles CDV violations. And given the sickening statistics that put South Carolina near the top of the list of states most dangerous for women, things really need to change.

House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, also applauded the bill for requiring schools to teach students about domestic abuse. He said it is important to “transform our culture,” and education is key.

If, as expected, a strong bill from the conference committee becomes law, CDV offenders will be punished according to the severity of the crime — and repeat offenders will be subject to stronger penalties. Offenders tend to inflict more damage with each offense.

The compromise bill also would allow prosecutors to consider whether a crime was committed in the presence of a minor or if the victim was strangled. Those could carry stiffer sentences.

And judges, when setting bond, could consider an offender’s danger to individuals as well as community.

Further, the legislation would establish an advisory committee to study domestic violence cases. That is a wise provision. There is more to learn about how to adjudicate, treat and prevent CDV.

The House’s compromise bill goes a long way to addressing the insidious problems of criminal domestic violence in South Carolina.

The Senate should get on board so that our state can begin the difficult task of overcoming this devastating epidemic.