Rep. Todd Rutherford delays domestic violence vote, pushes for more debate

File/Grace Beahm/Staff A domestic violence reform bill is heading for a vote in the S.C. House.

COLUMBIA — A leading Democrat denounced a domestic violence reform bill on Wednesday, delaying an expected vote and calling the bill “theater” if it is pushed through without a specific proposal to speed up treatment for batterers.

Rep. Todd Rutherford, the House minority leader, said the reform bill had been gutted after the Senate stripped an amendment he backed to provide immediate psychological assessments for batterers and victims after someone is charged.

The Senate approved the rest of the carefully-constructed House-Senate domestic violence compromise Tuesday, but it needs final approval from the House to move forward.

House GOP leaders had hoped to take up the Senate changes and vote for a final time Wednesday, but Rutherford used a procedural move to delay the vote for a day.

Republican leaders plan to agree with the Senate’s changes and move the bill to Gov. Nikki Haley, said Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who has played a key role in the domestic violence measure. Erickson said she does not believe Rutherford has the votes to block the measure further.

The bill toughens criminal penalties and mandates anti-violence education for children, which are key steps for addressing South Carolina’s domestic violence problem, supporters say. The legislation was spurred by The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Till Death Do Us Part,” which documented the problems.

Rutherford’s measure would provide risk assessors at jails who would speak to victims and make recommendations about whether an arrest charge is warranted. They would also guide batterers to treatment programs immediately after they are charged. The measure includes a new fine on all criminal charges that would amount to $4 million to pay for the counselors statewide, Rutherford said.

Sara Barber, executive director of the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, has said the provision is troublesome because it could give the victim authority over whether an abuser is arrested.

Rutherford hopes to change lawmakers’ minds on his proposal. It was rejected as part of the debate on the larger bill earlier this year.

Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.