- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A bill increasing penalties in South Carolina for repeat domestic violence offenders and banning batterers from having guns is heading to the governor’s desk.

The House voted 81-23 Thursday to accept a compromise bill. Twenty-one of the 23 votes against the bill came from Democrats who, once certain of its passage, felt they had the freedom to criticize the proposal for giving too much power to prosecutors and not doing enough to provide counseling or other help outside of the legal system.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter said something had to be done to move South Carolina down in the ranks as one of the top states for domestic violence, so a bad bill was better than no bill.

“I don’t want to wait around for another 20 years,” said Cobb-Hunter, R-Orangeburg.

The proposal changes the current system, which bases punishment for all but the most serious domestic cases on the number of offenses. That allows offenders to plead guilty to lesser offenses and get numerous misdemeanor convictions.

The bill heading to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk punishes abusers based on the severity of the attack, the number of prior offenses and other factors, such as whether the victim was strangled, is pregnant, or children saw the abuse.

The compromise also provides a lifetime gun ban for the worst abusers and has an automatic three- or 10-year ban in other cases.

But the deal stripped out Minority Leader Todd Rutherford’s amendment that would put what he called “risk assessors” in every jail in the state who would talk to victims and suspects, make recommendations about whether charges were necessary and guide batterers to counselling. He added a court fee to domestic violence cases to pay for his idea.

“I want the cycle of violence to stop. And the way to do it is to make people get counseling,” said Rutherford, D-Columbia.

Haley did not say Thursday whether she would sign the bill, although she has said in general she supports any efforts to make penalties tougher on batterers. The governor has said South Carolina also must stop being uncomfortable talking about domestic violence, collect better data, and get better police procedures to fight the crime.

Attorney General Alan Wilson praised the bill, saying it shows South Carolina is ready to crack down on domestic violence.

“There is no better way to honor those who have lost their lives to this tragic crime than passing meaningful reform that could save others,” Wilson said in a statement.

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