Domestic violence bills move forward

Lawmakers, law enforcement officials and others join Attorney General Alan Wilson at a rally Tuesday for domestic violence reform in the rotunda of the S.C. Statehouse.

COLUMBIA — Tougher penalties for abusers, stronger protections for victims and anti-violence classes in schools are among a special House committee’s recommendations for stanching South Carolina’s bloody toll from domestic assaults.

After months of work, the committee on domestic violence reform laid out a path for change Thursday but stopped short of endorsing a controversial provision that would strip gun rights from abusers.

Lawmakers said they wanted more time to study the provision, but they expect to endorse it when the committee meets again next week. Federal law bans those convicted of domestic violence from buying or possessing guns, but South Carolina doesn’t have its own legislation to enforce the ban or ensure that abusers comply.

The gun prohibition and more is contained in a Senate bill that also moved forward this week.

Led by Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, the 11-member House committee spent months hearing from victims and experts as it prepared to draft a plan for stemming the tide of domestic abuse in South Carolina, ranked among the nation’s deadliest states for women for more than a decade.

Erickson said she is considering whether to split the reforms into three bills or roll them into one. She said she plans to introduce the “comprehensive” legislation sometime next week, along with a separate report to explain the committee’s findings and serve as a resource for state officials.

Erickson said after the meeting that she was pleased the committee could come to a consensus and hopes it portends a smooth route for legislation as it makes its way to the House floor.

“I think we hit on all of the pieces,” Erickson said. “I’m very encouraged by the consensus.”

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said she was skeptical of the process at the beginning. She praised former House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, for his vision in setting up the committee. Harrell resigned last year after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds.

“I was so cynical about this,” Cobb-Hunter said. “We’ve had so many committees. Zero has happened. ... I’m so glad I was wrong about that.”

She added that even if the legislation passes: “It will require constant vigil and oversight to ensure a permanent, larger dent.”

Specifically, the bipartisan committee unanimously endorsed:

Creating a tiered system of penalties for domestic violence that allows prosecutors to punish abusers based on the severity of the crime. Under current law, more weight is given to how many times someone has been convicted of domestic violence rather than the nature of the crime.

Enacting a provision to instruct judges to take into account an individual’s safety, not just the safety of the community as a whole, when considering the release of someone charged with domestic violence on bail.

Creating a fatality review committee, which would examine domestic homicides in order to learn about weaknesses in the law or how it is applied.

Requiring the state Department of Education to draft domestic violence-based curriculum for health classes taken by students in grades 6-8.

Directing the Department of Social Services to study its voucher system for child care, especially to ensure victims can receive assistance for day care when going to court to testify against their abusers.

Allowing local solicitors to choose which court will prosecute a domestic violence case. Even those accused of a misdemeanor could be tried in circuit court rather than in front of a magistrate. Lawmakers said they hope the provision would give solicitors more flexibility in managing their dockets.

Improving batterers’ programs by shifting oversight from the Department of Social Services to the office of Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Recommending that more training on domestic violence issues be provided to law enforcement officers and judges around the state.

A hearing on similar legislation sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is expected next week.

The push for reform comes 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 for lack of action.

Three times in the past decade, the Palmetto State topped the nation in the rate of women killed by men, including 2013.

“We are so pleased to see lawmakers from both chambers and both sides of the aisle embrace the need to do more to hold domestic abusers accountable for their actions,” Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said Thursday. “By increasing penalties on domestic violence offenders and placing reasonable limits on firearm possession, (Martin’s bill) marks an important step forward for South Carolina and its renewed dedication to protecting women and families across our state. This bill would go a long way to reducing the high cost of domestic violence on our families and in our communities.”

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.