A domestic violence bill that creates harsher penalties for repeat offenders and bans gun ownership by abusers was signed into law Thursday by Gov. Nikki Haley, and Beaufort County supporters of the legislation are calling it a strong first step.
The new law will create stronger penalties for repeat domestic violence offenders based on the severity of the attack and the number of prior offenses. It replaces a system that focused punishments mostly on the number of offenses.
Other factors, such as whether the victim was strangled, pregnant, or abused in front of children, will also determine how the penalties are decided.
State law will now ban the highest-level offenders from purchasing guns. Lesser charges will come with a three-year or 10-year gun ban. To restore gun rights, lower-level offenders would have to meet the FBI's criteria to be removed from its national database.
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Haley said the new law would be a first step in changing a culture that had quietly ignored abuse.
"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," said Haley, while surrounded by more than 50 lawmakers and supporters of the new law.
South Carolina had one of the highest number of domestic violence deaths nationwide, a statistic advocates blame as much on a culture that tries to hide domestic violence problems as on lenient laws favoring abusers.
Haley set up a task force earlier in the year to examine domestic violence statewide.
14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone of Beaufort County, who was the only solicitor appointed to Haley's task force, said the new law will help crack down on offenders.
"This law recognizes the nature of domestic violence and gives prosecutors more tools to fight it," Stone said. "We know that domestic violence is repeated, escalating and learned behavior. This law allows us to punish offenders accordingly."
State Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, helped guide the bill through the House and chaired the special domestic violence committee set up by Haley. Along with increased penalties, the law gives victims more options to receive financial and other help in escaping from bad relationships and offers counseling and help for first-time offenders, she said.
Erickson joined the governor and others in thanking The Post & 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 the state'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."
The task force both Erickson and Stone are part of will report back to Haley by Aug. 6 with potential next steps to help curb domestic violence in South Carolina.
The committee discovered that the state doesn't keep track of the true scope of the issue. There was no uniform system on 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.
Kristin Dubrowski, executive director of Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse of Beaufort, said the new law is a "vast improvement."
"This will make a positive difference," she said. "The new law is holding perpetrators accountable and protecting victims of domestic violence."
Dubrowski said she had talked to both Erickson and Stone about domestic violence and the state task force. The lawmaker and the solicitor both attended CODA's annual meeting earlier in the year as part of their work on domestic violence, she said.
Dubrowski said she would like to see future legislation add more education and awareness initiatives, and earmark the funding needed to support them. The bill signed Thursday included an education component aimed at children, but Dubrowski said additional education requirements for older children and adults were needed to address the cultural issues that lead to domestic violence.
Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette staff writer Matt McNab and Associated Press staff writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.
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