New approaches can help reduce domestic violence

info@islandpacket.comOctober 16, 2013 

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone has taken a small, but significant step against domestic violence with his decision to do away with "drop slips" in his office.

The forms record a victim's decision not to cooperate in pressing charges. But the decision about whether to bring charges has always rested with the prosecutor, who represents the state, not the victim in criminal cases.

Getting a victim to sign, Stone says, was used by perpetrators to gain leverage with their victims and made it more difficult to prosecute.

A signed form also can provide cover and an excuse for reluctant prosecutors not to pursue a case. Removing them from the Solicitor's Office sends an important signal to victims, abusers, law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys.

Justice certainly isn't served by them, and it raises the question of why they exist in the first place.

Stone has long made stopping the cycle of domestic abuse a top concern. It is why in 2006 he worked to get a change in state law that allows his office to prosecute first offense domestic violence cases, a misdemeanor charge.

Prosecuting first offenses in General Sessions Court rather than Magistrate Court gives victims access to the resources of the Solicitor's Office. That includes an attorney instead of a police officer to prosecute the case and a victim's advocate. Support for the victim, who might be reluctant to testify, can be very important in getting a conviction.

Stone said he wanted to stop early on situations that could turn into a cycle of violence. His request for the change in 2006 came after three men were charged with murder in domestic-related disputes in Jasper and Beaufort counties.

Stone said then he thought the deaths might have been prevented if his office had prosecuted previous offenses against those charged with murder. He also was troubled by the high number of criminal domestic violence cases in the circuit.

Stone said last year, "We wanted (the 2006) law passed to send a message to those charged with criminal domestic violence that we are not hearing your case in the same courtroom as speeding tickets."

Earlier this month, Stone created a Crimes Against Women team, composed of a victim's advocate and a single prosecutor to handle all domestic violence cases in the circuit.

The announcement of the policy change on drop slips and the new team came just as South Carolina was ranked No. 1 in the country in the rate of men killing women, based on 2011 data.

The state had a rate of 2.54 women murdered per 100,000 women, more than double the national average, according to a report by the Violence Policy Center in Washington. Sixty-one South Carolina women were murdered by men in 2011.

In 2012, 48 people died in South Carolina as a result of domestic violence. Thirty-nine victims were female; nine were male.

Last year, many lamented a state Court of Appeals ruling that officers couldn't issue uniform traffic tickets for misdemeanor criminal domestic violence they did not witness. They worried that having to go to a magistrate to get an arrest warrant would reduce the number of charges filed.

Stone's approach shows that doesn't have to be the case. Neither he nor the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office seems hampered by a process that requires an arrest warrant and involves the county grand jury for misdemeanor domestic violence cases.

The 2006 law was written to apply to circuits of five counties or more. The 14th Circuit is the only one in the state that fits that description. Lawmakers should broaden it to apply to all of the state's 16 circuits.

There's no reason Stone's office should be the only using this approach to reducing the frequency of domestic violence in our state. Statistics show South Carolina needs a new approach.

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