South Carolina House leaders hope to introduce three bills next week that will toughen penalties for domestic violence and make it easier to keep suspected repeat abusers in custody.
An ad hoc Special Criminal Domestic Violence committee unanimously signed off on the draft legislation Thursday. Committee Chairwoman Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, said the proposals will be introduced as bills once members of the committee have time to review the language. She hopes that will happen by the middle of next week.
“I believe this is where our bill is going to really be different than some we’ve seen in the past,” she said during Thursday’s meeting.
The House action came one day after a Senate panel advanced similar legislation to the full Senate Judiciary Committee. Both chambers have made targeting domestic violence, particularly violence against women, an early priority this session.
The three proposed bills on the House side try to revamp penalties, reform how arrested batterers are granted bond, and take actions to change a social culture that allows spousal abuse to continue.
There are many similarities with the Senate version, particularly on how to treat first-time offenders. State Attorney General Alan Wilson and state solicitors have argued they are limited by the current tiered system that sets punishments based on the abuser’s history — the sentence gets longer after the second and third offenses. Instead, prosecutors have called for the sentence to be determined by the severity of the beating or abuse. Factors used would be the victim’s degree of injury, number of occurrences, and whether the batterer violated a protection order.
“We don’t want to apply the same rules to someone who may have an unfortunate circumstance that happens once that we would apply to people who are habitual offenders,” she said.
The new charge of third-degree domestic violence (the lowest level) would be a $2,500 fine and/or 30 days in jail. Second-degree would increase from a year maximum in prison to 3 years. First-degree would remain a felony, but the maximum penalty would increase from 5 years to 10.
The panel also moved to provide more information for judges to review prior to granting bond. The draft legislation would require a judge to have either the arresting officer or the police report in the courtroom, as well as the suspect’s criminal history.
The committee decided to take up the issue of gun confiscation next week. The Senate version would make it unlawful for a person convicted of any level of domestic violence to possess a firearm. That is already required under federal law, but there is no corresponding state law for local law enforcement entities to enforce.
Erickson said legislators are currently looking at banning guns for a convicted abuser until 10 years after their sentence is complete. But there is disagreement about whether a suspected offender could lose their gun rights as a condition of bond.
Members of the General Assembly are optimistic about passing some kind of domestic violence measure this year. One senior committee member State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, confessed that she was surprised by the proposal.
“I’m so jaded and cynical, I didn’t think anything would come of (these hearings),” she said. “And I’m so pleased to sit here today and say I was proven wrong.”