COLUMBIA, South Carolina — South Carolina's new domestic violence law marks a first step in changing a culture that has quietly ignored abuse, Gov. Nikki Haley said Thursday, just before she signed the bill.
The law increases penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders based on the severity of the attack, the number of prior offenses and other factors, like whether the victim was strangled, is pregnant or was abused with children nearby. It replaces an old system that based punishment mostly on the number of offenses.
It also imposes a lifetime gun ban on the worst abusers and an automatic three- or 10-year ban in other cases.
Haley said the new law works well with the task force she created to fight the long-ignored problem in South Carolina. The state often ranks at the top of the nation for the number of domestic violence deaths, a statistic advocates blame as much on a culture that tries to hide domestic violence problems as on lenient laws favoring abusers.
"We are working hard to make sure domestic violence is no longer a whisper — that it is something we actively talk about on a daily basis," Haley said, surrounded by more than 50 lawmakers and supporters of the new law.
Rep. Shannon Erickson helped guide the bill through the House. She said its comprehensiveness was critical. Along with increased penalties, it gives victims more options to get financial and other help escaping from bad relationships and offers counseling and help for first-time offenders.
Erickson, R-Beaufort, joined the governor and others in thanking The Post and Courier of Charleston for its Pulitzer Prize winning 2014 series on domestic violence, which put pressure on lawmakers and officials to stop ignoring studies about South Carolina's high domestic violence rate. Erickson said the newspaper gave a voice to the bravest people — victims willing to tell their stories publicly.
"We can thank the media all we want for giving them a voice, but it is a hard thing to do to talk about what happened in those very, very, very difficult situations. They spoke from their heart for months," Erickson said. "They told us exactly what happened in minute detail."
Haley's domestic violence task force met throughout this year, discovering that South Carolina doesn't keep track of the true scope of its domestic violence problem. There is no uniform system of reporting domestic violence, no consistent policies on what police do on domestic violence calls like take pictures or question children who may have seen abuse and no data on the rate of successful prosecution of domestic violence cases.
The governor has asked her task force to report back by Aug. 6 on solutions.
In the meantime, she said Thursday was a day for the state to celebrate taking a first step to protect its citizens.
"Today, I want every elected official to know you saved a life," Haley said.
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