Legislature passes domestic violence law

During a legislative session in which state lawmakers managed to accomplish almost nothing, passage of a domestic violence law was a bright spot. This bill exemplified what can be achieved when lawmakers from both parties and the governor unite to get something done.

The need to address the problem is dire, as highlighted by a 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning series by The Post and Courier of Charleston that detailed the plight of victims of domestic violence. South Carolina perennially ranks near the top nationally in its rate of domestic violence deaths, and part of the problem has been lax laws regarding those offenses.

Formerly, prosecutors had only two options for charges: a misdemeanor carrying a possible 30-day sentence or a felony punishable by up to 10 years. Prosecutors often resorted to handing out sentences based on the number of past offenses, which allowed many serious offenders to escape with a wrist slap.

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, who took a lead role in lobbying for changes in the law, was highly critical of the discrepancies in penalties for domestic violence compared to less serious offenses.

“Our laws reflect our values,” Wilson said. “We cannot live in a society where you can beat your dog and get five years and beat your wife and get 30 days.”

Victim advocate groups noted that penalties for hunting out of season were greater than those for domestic abuse. And hunting out of season carried the possibility of gun confiscation, a penalty rarely faced by domestic abusers.

The changes approved by lawmakers and signed into law last week by Gov. Nikki Haley went a long way in remedying those disparities. The law establishes penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders based not just on the number of prior offenses but also on the severity of the attack. If a victim is strangled during an attack, is pregnant or was abused while children are present factors into the sentence.

The new law also creates a four-tiered system of possible charges ranging from a misdemeanor with a 90-day sentence to a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Significantly, penalties also can include confiscation of guns. The law imposes a lifetime gun ban on the worst abusers and an automatic three- or 10-year ban in other cases.

Gov. Haley has called the reforms the first step in changing the culture that allows high rates of domestic violence to persist. She created a special task force to study domestic violence and its causes, which has met throughout this year, and has asked the panel to report back by Aug. 6 on solutions.

We agree with Haley that stiffer penalties are just one component of dealing with the epidemic of domestic violence. The culture that keeps domestic violence under wraps and prevents victims from speaking out must change, and that will require a concerted effort on the part of concerned residents, victims’ advocates, elected officials and others.

But while the new domestic violence law is only a part of that process, it is an essential part. As Attorney General Wilson stated, our laws reflect our values, and we need to send the message that our values will not tolerate the continued violence against women.

In summary

The changes approved by lawmakers and signed into law last week by Gov. Nikki Haley give prosecutors more leeway in sentencing domestic abusers.