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SC looks to battle domestic violence through legislative changes

Attorney General Alan Wilson
Attorney General Alan Wilson

Every minute in the United States, 24 people are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. In South Carolina in 2012, 85 people were killed as a result of domestic violence, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

People at all levels across South Carolina are trying their best to save the next group of potential victims.

Attorney General Alan Wilson, along with several legislators, is spearheading that fight in the General Assembly this session, encouraging the passage of major changes to domestic violence law in South Carolina to change penalties, enable harsher punishment for attackers, and provide greater protection for victims.

“We live in a state where you can serve more jail time for beating your dog than beating your spouse,” Wilson said. “That is just unacceptable.”

All domestic violence is ‘criminal’

One obvious proposed change is dropping “criminal” from the charge of “criminal domestic violence.”

“All domestic violence is criminal,” said Jada Charley, executive director of Safe Passage, a Rock Hill-based rescue and advocacy organization for victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse.

Domestic violence is an equal-opportunity crime, Wilson and Charley said. It’s in all areas of South Carolina and touches people of all races, sexual orientations, genders, socioeconomic classes, education levels and religions.

While many people just think of domestic violence as physical, Charley said there are six recognized forms of domestic violence: physical, emotional, verbal, financial, abuse of pets and threats to family and friends.

“It’s about power and control,” Charley said. “It’s not about the victim doing something wrong.”

One of the most common questions asked about victims is, “Why didn’t you just leave,” Charley said, but it’s rarely that simple.

Many victims are financially dependent on their abusers or have children with them, Wilson and Charley said. To leave would destroy their families, disrupt their home lives and leave them with no where to stay and no way to buy food or clothes. They don’t realize the resources available in the community, or they’re in complete fear for their lives if they leave, Charley said.

South Carolina ranks second in the nation in the rate of men who kill women, and has been ranked first three times in the past 10 years. It has been in the top 10 for the past 17 years, according to the Violence Policy Center.

Changing the way domestic violence crimes are charged

Under current law, the seriousness of a defendant’s domestic violence charges is based on the number of offenses he or she has committed, not the severity of the offense, Wilson said. A bill, sponsored by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, would base punishment on the harm inflicted.

There’s also a mediating of possible sentences. Under current law, a prosecutor can pursue a misdemeanor charge with a 30-day prison sentence or a felony with a 1- to 10-year prison sentence.

“That’s a lot of golf between the tee and the hole,” Wilson said. “We’re telling law enforcement and prosecutors there’s a delta between the two extremes.”

The proposed changes also include “aggravating factors” that could increase the severity of a suspect’s charges, such as committing the attack in front of a child, against a pregnant woman or preventing the victim from using a phone to call law enforcement for help.

“These are the things we’re focusing on to get frontline cops and prosecutors more effective and efficient prosecutorial tools,” Wilson said.

If the bill, which has cleared the Senate and is now in the House, passes, Wilson said the state’s domestic violence issues won’t change overnight. But the bill will help the ongoing battle in the long run.

Community action needed

Even the best laws won’t accomplish everything, said Wilson and Charley. The fight against domestic violence has to start in communities, before law enforcement and the courts get involved.

“We have to break down that stigma that domestic violence is a private issue,” Charley said. “It’s a societal issue.”

The best approach is a “see something, say something” attitude, she said, meaning friends, family members and neighbors need to look out for the warning signs of domestic violence.

Master police officer Angie Wells has spent much of her 11 years at the Rock Hill Police Department working on domestic violence cases. She said employers can also be one of the best domestic violence watchdogs, since people spend so much time at work.

“We need to look out for our neighbors,” she said.

Education about domestic violence needs to start at a young age, Wilson said, and should be taught in schools through age-appropriate conversations.

“You can’t wait until they’re 15 to try and change their minds about hitting,” Wilson said.

Statistics show that children who grow up with domestic violence in their homes are more likely to commit or become victims of domestic violence. Between 30 percent and 60 percent of those in South Carolina who commit domestic violence against a partner also abuse the children in the home, according to the state Department of Social Services.

Educating children about domestic violence could also help stave off teenage dating violence, which is on the rise, Charley said.

A national survey recently showed 1 in 5 teenage girls and 1 in 10 teenage boys said they had been abused at least once during the past year.

‘A good step but not the only step’

While the proposed domestic law changes might help victims and punish perpetrators more, Charley said it’s not the only thing that needs to be done.

Under South Carolina law, mental or emotional abuse is not grounds for divorce, according to the South Carolina Bar. The only domestic violence-related grounds for divorce is “physical cruelty.”

Charley said the state could benefit from more designated domestic violence prosecutors who are specially trained in handling domestic violence cases. Wells said she’d like to see an increased number of special domestic violence courts.

Until there are changes in the way domestic violence suspects are prosecuted, “we can arrest people all day long,” but it won’t make a difference, Wells said.

The way the courts work, victim testimony is heavily relied upon, Wells said, but the majority of victims don’t want to testify against their alleged perpetrators, often out of fear or shame.

“We have to build a case without them,” which can prove difficult, she said.

Charley said there’s also an issue with state domestic law not recognizing the rights of same-sex couples to be protected from abuse. The bill defines a household member as a spouse or a male and female who are “cohabiting or formerly have cohabited.”

That means legal protection from domestic violence doesn’t extend to same-sex couples who aren’t legally married.

Wells and Charley both said there aren’t enough resources for domestic violence victims. Charley said rural counties, such as those in the Upstate, are particularly difficult places for domestic violence victims because of a lack of transportation.

A victim from Sharon, for instance, who needs to come to Safe Passages in Rock Hill to escape abuse, has to rely on her own transportation or get a ride from someone else, which might prevent her from seeking help.

It’s also hard for victims to get to work or court dates because of the lack of transportation options and the lack of affordable housing in the area. Also, the cost of utilities often dissuades victims from leaving a violent situation because they know they won’t be able to afford to live on their own, she said.

These proposed changes to domestic violence being considered by lawmakers are “a good step, but not the only step,” Charley said.

Rachel Southmayd •  803-329-4072

Current law

Charge: Criminal domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature

Guilty if a person commits an assault and battery that involves the use of a deadly weapon or results in serious bodily injury or would reasonably cause a person to fear imminent serious bodily injury or death.

Penalty: Felony, prison sentence between one and 10 years.

Charge: Criminal domestic violence first offense

Guilty if, for the first time, a person caused physical harm or injury to a household member or threatened or attempted to cause harm or injury, creating fear of imminent peril.

Penalty: Misdemeanor, fine between $1,000 and $2,500 or a prison sentence of 30 days or less.

Charge: Criminal domestic violence second offense

Guilty if, for the second time, a person caused physical harm or injury to a household member or threatened or attempted to cause harm or injury, creating fear of imminent peril.

Penalty: Misdemeanor, fine between $2,500 and $5,000 and a prison sentence of 30 days to one year.

Charge: Criminal domestic violence third offense

Guilty if, for the third time, a person caused physical harm or injury to a household member or threatened or attempted to cause harm or injury, creating fear of imminent peril.

Penalty: Felony, imprisonment for one to five years.

Proposed new law

Charge: Domestic violence of a high and aggravated nature

Guilty if a person committed domestic violence under circumstances demonstrating extreme indifference to the value of human life and resulted in great bodily injury or would reasonably cause the victim to fear imminent great bodily injury or death or committed domestic violence in the first degree while violating a protection order.

Penalty: Felony, prison sentence of not more than 20 years.

Charge: Domestic violence first degree

Guilty if a person caused physical harm or injury to a household member or threatened or attempted to cause harm or injury, creating fear of imminent peril. Also, if a person harassed the household member and great bodily injury results or could have resulted in great bodily injury or committed domestic violence of the second degree while violating a protection order or has two or more prior domestic violence convictions within the past 10 years or one conviction within the past five years or has other elevating factors (listed below).

Penalty: Felony, prison sentence of not more than 10 years, but between one and 10 years if the person has three or more prior domestic violence convictions within the past 10 years.

Charge: Domestic violence second degree

Guilty if a person caused physical harm or injury to a household member or threatened or attempted to cause harm or injury, creating fear of imminent peril or harassed the household member resulting in moderate bodily injury or could have resulted in moderate bodily injury or committed domestic violence of the third degree while violating a protection order or has one prior conviction of domestic violence between five and 10 years ago or has other elevating factors.

Penalty: Misdemeanor, fine of $2,500 to $5,000 or prison sentence of up to three years or both.

Charge: Domestic violence third degree

Guilty if a person caused physical harm or injury to a household member or threatened or attempted to cause harm or injury, creating fear of imminent peril or harassed the household member.

Penalty: Misdemeanor, fine of $1,000 to $2,500, or a prison sentence of up to 90 days or both.

Elevating factors for domestic violence charges:

▪ The offense is committed in the presence of a minor

▪ The offense is committed against a pregnant woman

▪ The offense is committed during the commission of another crime

▪ The offender uses force or the threat of force to prevent the victim from reaching a phone or communication device to stop them from reporting the incident to law enforcement or seeking medical help

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