Originally created 12/17/05

Panel to debate changes to law



COLUMBIA - Judy Ewing can picture the worst-case scenario.

A person, convicted a third time of criminal domestic violence, sits in jail for a year or more, stewing - and plotting revenge.

"Twelve months in jail without any sort of specialized counseling to prepare them to come out?" said Ms. Ewing, the executive director of the Domestic Abuse Center, which treats domestic violence offenders.

"We don't want them to come out and say, 'I'll pay her (back) for doing this to me.'"

Beginning Jan. 1, people who are convicted at least three times of criminal domestic violence are mandated to spend at least a year in jail. They also are required to participate in a treatment course once they get out, Ms. Ewing said.

But she would like the treatment to begin earlier, perhaps four or five months before they are released.

On Friday, she made that recommendation to a joint House and Senate committee formed to study South Carolina's domestic violence laws and to suggest changes.

South Carolina law enforcement responds to about 35,000 domestic violence calls annually, according to the South Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault.

Ms. Ewing believes treating domestic violence offenders before they are released could help.

"We have a captive audience," she said.

"They're going to be working on themselves, but the critical moment will be when they come out," she said. "You know, they'll be full of good intentions, but then they hit the real world."

Ms. Ewing hopes to prepare offenders for that moment. But, she warned the committee, that will take money.

How much, exactly, she does not yet know.

And committee members opted not to vote on any of the suggestions they have heard so far until they have estimates on how much each proposal would cost.

Among the other suggestions: establishing prosecutors and public defenders specializing in criminal domestic violence in each of the state's 46 counties, and scaling back new requirements on victim notification.

Law enforcement must notify the victim of a crime anytime there is a change in the offender's status: a bond hearing, transfer, release, etc., said Jeffrey Moore, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff's Association.

The new law stipulates that if law enforcement doesn't reach the victim by phone or other automated means after three tries, an officer must be sent to the victim's house, Mr. Moore said.

As written, though, the law requires that for every reported crime - and, last year, that totaled 500,000, he said.

Some of those crimes have more than one victim, Mr. Moore said, and law enforcement simply cannot knock on all those doors.

He asked that the law be changed so the new requirement pertains only to criminal domestic violence and stalking cases.

"We really need relief from having to do it with every crime, with every victim, in every case," he said.

Committee members decided to reconvene in January to study each option's cost.

The panel has been asked to recommend any changes to the General Assembly by Feb. 15.