Beaufort County is helping lead South Carolina away from its shameful record on domestic violence.
State Rep. Shannon Erickson of Beaufort was the House leader on a comprehensive reform bill that was the high point of the legislature's regular session that ended in June.
And within the 68-page Domestic Violence Reform Act is another local credit.
The law grants statewide use of an effective tool against domestic violence that originated in the office of 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone.
Under the new law, the least serious domestic violence cases may be tried in General Sessions court.
That flexibility has been available to the 14th Circuit solicitor since 2006. We argued at the time it was unconstitutional because it applied only to circuits of five counties or more, meaning only to the 14th Circuit. Indeed it was unconstitutional, but it was the law.
In effect, our circuit became a pilot project for something that should have been available statewide the whole time. And that experience was cited as the new law was crafted.
Taking domestic violence cases to General Sessions court has several advantages.
It means that an attorney in the solicitor's office will prosecute the case. Stone said that slightly more than half of the time, cases tried in South Carolina's magistrate or municipal courts are prosecuted by a police officer. That often pits the officer against a defense attorney with a law degree and years of experience of finding holes in criminal cases. That is not a level playing field for justice.
The provision also means that every case has a victims' advocate assigned to it.
And it means that domestic violence is treated as a more serious offense by the state. Someone who beats his wife may no longer be tried in a room full of people with speeding tickets but could be sitting in the same room with robbers and murderers.
Just as the new statute increases the penalties for domestic violence and closes loopholes that gave violators multiple shots at a first-offense conviction, this move to try cases in General Sessions court puts more heat on offenders.
"It sends a message that we take these cases seriously," Stone said.
That mindset, and statewide application of tools that work, may someday mean that South Carolina is no longer one of the worst states in America for domestic abuse.