Domestic abuse bill on way to governor

A silent witness ceremony. The House finalized a domestic violence reform bill.

COLUMBIA — The S.C. House placed the Legislature’s final stamp of approval Thursday on a criminal domestic violence reform measure that seeks to stanch the state’s domestic violence bloodshed by toughening criminal penalties and better protecting victims.

The measure — passed in the closing days of South Carolina’s lengthy six-month session — represents a key step, supporters say, in fighting an epidemic of violence and killings across the state by spouses and loved ones. South Carolina is consistently among the worst in the nation for men killing women they know.

The House voted 81-23 to agree with changes previously made by the Senate, sending the bill to Gov. Nikki Haley for her signature. A Haley spokeswoman did not immediately return a request for comment, although House leaders said they had heard no objections from the governor’s office.

“As this bill goes to the Governor’s desk for signature, I am confident this new law will act as a deterrent for future crimes, hold abusers accountable with increased penalties, and institute a cultural change to put an end to domestic violence,” House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Hartsville, said in a statement.

The Senate had stripped a treatment provision touted by House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford from the bill, and some Democrats registered their displeasure by voting to send the bill to a conference committee to hash out differences. Two Republicans, Reps. Ralph Norman and Heather Crawford, voted with them.

Rutherford said lawmakers had missed an opportunity to include a provision that would have put those charged with domestic violence into treatment programs immediately. The bill’s proponents said the idea had not been studied adequately.

“I want the cycle of violence to stop and the way to do it is to make people get counseling and get it right away,” Rutherford said.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who headed up the House’s domestic violence reform effort, praised The Post and Courier in an interview for pushing the issue. The newspaper delved into the state’s culture of violence and the state’s lack of action through its Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which prompted legislators to act.

The final bill represented a series of careful, tenuous compromises, as the bill had appeared hopelessly stalled in recent weeks. Erickson said she served as a mediator, hammering out differences. Senators insisted on tougher penalties, while House members wanted more social policy changes and worked to soften some areas, including the length of time a batterer was stripped of his or her gun rights.

“There’s nothing that leaves this process at 100 percent of what it should be,” Erickson said. “There are very, very big issues that were glaring that needed to be addressed.”

She said the state’s current domestic violence laws are problematic for prosecutors, making it tough to secure convictions. The system for years has been based on how many times someone has been charged with domestic violence.

The bill fixes that through a hybrid system that takes into account both the number of times someone has been charged and the severity of the crime, a system implemented in other states and pushed by Attorney General Alan Wilson.

“While this problem won’t be overcome with legislation alone, South Carolina has taken its first giant step in the long journey to changing the culture of violence,” Wilson said in a statement. He added in an interview that lawmakers need to continue to address the issue — examining treatment programs, halfway houses and other preventative measures so that the crime never occurs in the first place.

“I hope people don’t feel, ‘OK, we passed a law, lets look at it in 20 years,’” he said. “I want to keep the pedal to the metal on this.”

The reform effort overcame early opposition by conservative Upstate lawmakers over a proposed gun ban. Federal law imposes a lifetime ban on guns for those convicted of domestic violence, but advocates had said it is rarely enforced and the state needs its own ban.

The Senate placed 10-year bans on higher-level domestic violence crimes but compromised with the House on three years for lower-level offenses. The most severe crimes carry a lifetime ban in the bill that passed.

The Senate also agreed to allow state police to petition the federal government to remove offenders’ names from a national gun database. The FBI would have to agree to make the change.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said the three-year ban was “better than none” but had hoped for the longer ban and stiffer penalties pushed in the Senate’s original bill. Shealy’s impassioned remarks to the Senate about her sister’s domestic violence situation helped secure the bill.

She also said she was pleased the House added a provision for anti-violence education for elementary school students.

“Now, people know there are consequences ... we are taking a stand,” Shealy said of the bill. “We’ll have to watch and we may have to do something different.”

The compromise bill left victims advocates generally pleased but also disappointed in some areas. Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council, said she was disappointed language was left in that she believes allows prosecutors to more easily plead down domestic violence crimes to assault and battery. Judges also have discretion on whether to impose a gun ban on all but the highest-level crimes, which advocates fought.

“It’s going to be interesting from this point to see how our prosecutors (and judges) handle it,” Hudson said.

She praised The Post and Courier for exposing the “underbelly” of the system and for following up on coverage throughout the legislative session, which she said helped push lawmakers to reach the finish line.

Advocates hope to continue to make improvements through a task force formed by Gov. Haley, which is expected to deliver its own set of solutions later this year.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.