A criminal domestic violence bill that went largely unnoticed this legislative session until a lawmaker’s controversial remarks won easy approval Wednesday. The House, which first passed the bill last month, agreed in a voice vote to minor changes made by the Senate and sent it to Governor Mark Sanford for his signature. Sanford is “strongly inclined” to sign the bill, spokesman Will Folks said. If the bill becomes law, it will go into effect January 1, 2006.
Victim advocates were delighted by the passage of the bill, which calls for mandatory minimum sentences for more serious offenses and higher fines. South Carolina in recent years has ranked No. 1 in the rate of women killed by men. “I think we will move our state (below) the top 10 in the nation in domestic violence homicides,” said Vicki Bourus, director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. “I know it will save lives,” said Laura Hudson, spokeswoman for the S.C. Victim Assistance Network.
But Columbia lawyer Kathrine Hudgins, president of the S.C.Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, doesn’t believe the bill will deter domestic violence. “What we need to do to help people is to get them into treatment programs, not throw them into jail,” she said. “As a general principle, mandatory minimums don’t solve the problem.” The bill calls for mandatory minimum sentences of 30 days for second offenses, and one year for third and subsequent offenses and criminal domestic violence of a high and an aggravated nature. It also sets minimum fines for first and second offenses at $1,000 and $2,500, respectively, and makes third and subsequent offenses felonies. “I’m very pleased with the enhanced penalties,” said David Pascoe, the solicitor for Orangeburg, Calhoun and Dorchester counties. “(A third offense) needs to be a felony.”
The bill is a revised version of a bill initially sponsored by Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg. That bill languished in the House until April, when Rep. John Graham Altman, R-Charleston, uttered what critics said were insensitive remarks about domestic violence victims during a House Judiciary Committee meeting and to a female WIS television reporter. Altman’s comments made national news and prompted lawmakers to take a renewed interest in the bill. Efforts after Wednesday’s vote to reach Altman, a co-sponsor of the revised bill, were unsuccessful. Cobb-Hunter, who took her name off the revised bill, contending it had become too politicized, said Wednesday she was happy it passed. She praised House Speaker David Wilkins, R-Greenville, and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, for their leadership. “If they had chosen not to get behind it, it wouldn’t have happened,” she said.