Criminal domestic violence help still in the works

Members of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Victim Advocate Association joins Attorney General Alan Wilson in January for a rally for domestic violence reform in the rotunda of the South Carolina Statehouse. Earlier this week, the House passed a bill to toughen criminal domestic violence laws.

What we have at the Statehouse is a failure to communicate.

Earlier this week, the House passed a bill to toughen criminal domestic violence laws. And it is markedly different than legislation passed by the Senate in March, which was monumental because it called for taking away the guns of convicted abusers for a period of time.

That’s key, because the thing about domestic violence is that it often escalates from beatings to shootings.

The House originally opposed the gun ban but finally budged a little. The House version says judges can take away guns in some cases but doesn’t require it — as if that’s going to appease those folks who think any gun law is a slippery slope to killing the Second Amendment.

The problem here is that bills only become laws when both the House and Senate approve the same one — and the chances of that happening here are slim. The Senate is operating under the old premise that the House should have taken up its bill since it passed first. House members say they started studying the issue first, and wanted to do their own thing.

The upshot is that the House has passed legislation that the Senate is unlikely to consider. And the Senate bill is going nowhere in the House.

So come June, lawmakers will point fingers at each other, say they did their job and blame the folks across the hall for another year of government inaction.

And what exactly does that do to help women who are beaten or killed by their spouses?

Not a damn thing.

The Legislature’s playground tactics are especially alarming seeing as how South Carolina remains the most dangerous state in the country for women.

More women here are killed by their family members, loved ones or people they know than any place else. That is not a good list to be on, obviously.

The only good news here is that some folks are taking this seriously. In January, Gov. Nikki Haley created her own criminal domestic violence task force, and that group of 40 people is currently in the middle of a year-long study.

Sure, some people will say that we need action, not study. That’s true. But this task force is not planning to release some report that says domestic violence is a problem. The task force — which includes Haley administration officials, victims’ advocates and even Chief Justice Jean Toal — is looking at every aspect of these crimes, trying to figure out how to change the culture of the state.

That’s an ambitious goal, but Bryan Stirling, director of the state Department of Corrections and chairman of the task force’s criminal justice division panel, says his colleagues have a passion for fixing the problem.

The task force has broken into smaller groups, drilling down into every aspect of these crimes, and how they are adjudicated. For instance, does the state need to help victims apply for protective orders? Do victims get enough information about services that are available to them, where they can go if they want to get away from an abusive spouse?

Are police and prosecutors handling these cases correctly? And do children in the homes where domestic violence occurs need special attention. It’s complicated, Stirling admits.

“It’s not just a policing thing, we need to figure out how to stop it,” he says.

That should be the ultimate goal.

The task force is looking closely at Greenwood County, which has the highest reported rate of domestic violence in the state — 211.5 cases per 10,000 residents.

By comparison, Charleston County has 88.

Stirling says this could be a problem with most counties under-reporting cases, or it could be that Greenwood County is exceptionally good at identifying domestic abuse and prosecuting it.

Whatever the case, Haley’s task force is promising bold action — not just a lot of talk. Stirling says the task force is going to recommend, and make, changes internally in state government and come up with some solutions.

And as for the Legislature’s apparent failure to get its act together?

“I think the Legislature can do whatever it is going to do, but the governor wants us to change the culture,” Stirling says. “We are looking at what we can do without the Legislature.”

That’s probably a smart idea because right now the General Assembly is not inspiring a lot of confidence.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.