SC House unanimously approves compromise on domestic violence following weeks of negotiations

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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The Legislature appears poised to pass a bill aimed at stemming South Carolina's persistently high rates of domestic violence, after weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiations between a handful of House and Senate members.

The House approved a compromise Wednesday that creates tiered penalties for batterers and bans some of them from having guns. The 104-0 vote came 2½ months after the Senate passed its version.

"We had to let things lie for a while because it's a highly charged, emotional issue," that's personal for many legislators, said Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who led a House panel that began meeting on the issue last year and helped craft the compromise.

Another, perfunctory vote will return the amended bill to the Senate.

"I don't foresee any bumps to getting it passed," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin, R-Pickens, the Senate's main sponsor.

Now, domestic violence prosecution is based on the number of offenses in all but the worst cases. An offender who pleads to a lesser offense can repeatedly face misdemeanor punishment as a first-time offender, with up to 30 days in jail.

The compromise would punish batterers based on a combination of the severity of the abuse, the number of offenses and circumstances surrounding the crime. The charge would be bumped up if, for example, the crime involves a weapon or attempted strangulation, is committed in front of a child or the victim is pregnant.

"It will hold true batterers more accountable" and deal with them earlier, said Sen. Greg Hembree, R-North Myrtle Beach, formerly the chief prosecutor for Horry and Georgetown counties. More convictions should cause the rates of domestic violence to drop over time, he said.

Other parts of the 69-page measure include adding domestic violence to middle school health classes, putting local prosecutors — rather than the Department of Social Service — in charge of batterers' treatment programs, and requiring judges to consider a defendant's danger to the victim — not just the community generally — in setting bond. It also allows for lifetime restraining orders, so victims don't have to face their abusers yearly in hearings.

"The tools in the toolbox for everybody have just been raised by leaps and bounds," Erickson said. "What we want is systemic change."

Lawmakers in both chambers and parties called domestic violence a priority for the session. But progress stalled over disagreements on the details.

The gun provision was key. Shootings cause most domestic violence deaths in South Carolina, which consistently ranks among the nation's worst in violence against women. Still, many lawmakers balked at restricting ownership in this gun-enthusiast state.

The compromise requires a lifetime gun ban for the worst abusers. It sets up an automatic three- or 10-year ban in other cases and gives the judge discretion on the lowest offenses. However, no guns would be confiscated. Instead, abusers later found in possession could face up to a felony, depending on the original charge.

Hembree said it should make the "guy who likes to go hunting" think twice.

"People need to know there are consequences for their actions, and I hope it sends that message," said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, who wanted stronger gun penalties but calls the compromise a step forward.

The ban is already federal law, but that requires federal prosecution. State and local law enforcement need a corresponding state law to enforce it.

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