Domestic violence bill likely just the beginning

Lawmakers and advocates, who annually hold a silent witness demonstration at the Statehouse, want to keep the pressure on when it comes to stopping domestic violence.

COLUMBIA — South Carolina is on the verge this week of getting tougher on domestic violence, what lawmakers have called a key initial step in stemming the crime’s bloody toll in the Palmetto State.

But lawmakers and advocates don’t want to stop there. They want domestic violence to stay in the public spotlight and in the Legislature’s cross hairs for years to come.

Reversing the state’s disturbing domestic violence trends will take a dramatic shift in the way men view violence and women — something advocates say could take a generation. It will also require funding for treatment programs, training and shelters, a get-tough approach from prosecutors and a better understanding of what’s happening across the state around the issue, among other initiatives.

Infighting and disagreement over whether and how to strip abusers of their gun rights had threatened to sideline a bill that passed the House last week and is expected to be taken up by the Senate in the coming days. In the end, lawmakers worked behind the scenes to strike a compromise that strengthens criminal penalties, bans batterers from possessing guns and requires students to be educated in its prevention. The House passed the measure last week and a Senate vote is expected in the coming days.

Many say it’s difficult to move forward on the issue when there are so many gaps in the state’s knowledge about how domestic violence is being treated across the state.

That lack of reliable statistics shocked Gov. Nikki Haley when initial findings from a domestic violence task force were presented last week. One of the most striking things about the task force’s initial findings is how much the state does not know. Domestic violence statistics are considered suspicious and unreliable, and no one is keeping track of what happens to cases. Because of that, advocates don’t yet know where the problems are or what’s working.

While Haley hasn’t commented specifically about the proposal making its way to the Senate, she told reporters that the fixes to domestic violence shouldn’t be entirely legislative. She said her appointed task force is designed to find fixes at the local level.

“You can do all the legislation you want but you’re not going to take care of it if you’re not doing it from the ground up,” Haley told reporters. That approach — ensuring both government and other local groups working on the issue are on the same page — is key to changing people’s minds on the issue, she said.

Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, who has pushed the issue this year, said he wants to make sure the initial proposal likely to pass the Senate this week is implemented well as a first step to attacking the problem.

He plans to meet with prosecutors after the legislative session to impress upon them the importance of pushing for convictions, rather than accepting plea deals on lesser charges.

Local elected prosecutors should take a tough line on domestic violence or be held accountable, he said.

Beyond the bill, though, Martin wants a sea change in attitudes toward domestic violence. “I want to see domestic violence treated very similarly to racism,” he said, meaning a public attitude that it is unacceptable.

Getting there will also mean more funds from the state, Martin said. Prosecutors and victims advocates are overwhelmed, handling huge volumes of cases that often fall through the cracks. Treatment programs have poor oversight and are often lacking in the care they provide.

Martin said it is always an uphill fight in a Republican Statehouse to obtain more funding for governmental groups or agencies working on the issue.

Not all the fixes require funding.

In the minds of prosecutors pushing a different approach, many domestic crimes are preventable.

Duffie Stone, the local solicitor who prosecutes crimes in five counties in the rural Lowcountry, said law enforcement needs to understand that the first time someone faces a domestic violence charge isn’t really the first time it has happened. Prosecutors struggle with convictions — victims don’t often want to testify and evidence often is lacking.

Still, he thinks many can do better to intervene sooner. He recounted a case where a man first ripped out his wife’s car stereo. Later on, he shot at her from his car, missing. So when tension continued to escalate and he fired a fatal bullet through his wife’s window as both drove down a street in separate cars, it was the culmination of events long set in motion.

“It’s not a freak event,” Stone said. “It’s an inevitable conclusion.”

Reach Jeremy Borden a 708-5837.