Crime Victims Are Forgotten by Legislature

The NerveAlthough S.C. Senate and House members apparently think nothing of giving their respective chambers a combined $5.4 million budget hike next fiscal year, their fiscal generosity hasn’t extended to victims of domestic violence or drunken driving.

As part of their proposed state budgets for fiscal year 2010-11, which starts July 1, both chambers would eliminate all general funding for prosecution programs for first-offense criminal domestic violence (CDV) and driving-under-the-influence (DUI) cases in the state’s magistrate courts, where most of those cases are heard.

The proposed budget hikes for the House and Senate chambers would more than pay for those programs. Without the programs, police officers who make CDV or DUI arrests will be more likely to act as prosecutors, which, according to solicitors and victim advocates, will put them at a disadvantage in most trials or other court proceedings where the defendants have lawyers.

The General Assembly had been gradually cutting those programs since they started being funded several years ago. In fiscal year 2007-08, for example, $2.2 million and $1.6 million were designated for the CDV and DUI programs, respectively, compared to $2 million and $1.4 million for those respective programs last fiscal year.

No general funds were appropriated for the programs this fiscal year, though the CDV program received $1.6 million in federal stimulus money, said William Bilton, executive director of the S.C. Commission on Prosecution Coordination, which disperses program money to the state’s 16 judicial circuits. He said his office plans to apply for the same amount of stimulus money for next fiscal year.

“When that runs out, it’s back to square one,” Bilton told The Nerve last week.

Bilton said state budget writers turned down his office’s request to reinstate general funding for the CDV and DUI programs. He added that state money for victim advocate programs in solicitors’ offices statewide also will be eliminated under next year’s proposed budgets; $2.26 million was appropriated for those programs in fiscal years 2008 and 2009, though it was reduced to $924,300 at the start of this fiscal year.
“There are 1,001 stories around the State House of excellent programs being deleted,” Bilton said.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the nonprofit South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council and legislative liaison for the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said last week she can’t understand the Legislature’s priorities.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason on what is a priority,” she told The Nerve. “To me, the first priority is public safety.”

Asked about the proposed budget hikes for the House and Senate chambers, Hudson replied tongue-in-cheek: “The House and Senate are not essential. Why don’t they just meet every couple years?”

The Senate has proposed a $12.3 million budget for its chamber for 2010-11, an increase of nearly $3.9 million, or 46 percent, over the start of this fiscal year. The House earlier this month increased its budget for its chamber to $17.6 million, a hike of about $1.5 million, or 9 percent, over this fiscal year’s ratified budget. Both proposed budgets would be the largest for the respective chambers in at least the past 12 years when special funding for reapportionment, or the redrawing of legislative district lines, is included, an earlier review by The Nerve found.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has taken a chainsaw to plenty of state agencies’ general fund budgets in recent years. Next year’s proposed general fund budget for the state is about $5.1 billion, down more than $600 million from the start of this fiscal year.

Nationally, the Palmetto State has ranked at or near the top over the years in domestic violence deaths and alcohol-related traffic deaths. For example, the Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., last year ranked South Carolina as having the eighth-highest rate in the U.S. of women killed by men, at 2.04 deaths per 100,000 people.

In 2008, of the 920 people killed in car wrecks in South Carolina, 403, or 44 percent, died in crashes in which a driver had a blood-alcohol level of at least .08 percent, the legal threshold for drunken driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Victim advocates such as Hudson contend that aggressively prosecuting first-time offenders can help break cycles that too often escalate into tragedy.

“There’s no doubt about the success of these programs,” Hudson said.

Hudson said the programs are needed because defendants often come to court “loaded for bear with their attorneys, and the poor victim has a law enforcement officer who’s not equipped to go up against a seasoned defense lawyer.”

The Legislature first funded the statewide CDV program, which was pushed by S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, in fiscal year 2007; the statewide DUI program, which was supported by the S.C. Solicitors’ Association, was funded a year later. Budget provisos had authorized how the money was divided among the circuits, but those provisos are deleted in next fiscal year’s proposed budget by the House and Senate.

“Removing the CDV funding would have an immediate, dramatic and negative impact on the fight against this state’s worst crime problem,” McMaster spokesman Mark Plowden told The Nerve last week.
Eighth Circuit Solicitor Jerry Peace, president of the S.C. Solicitors’ Association, told The Nerve last week that the proposed elimination of general funding for the CDV and DUI programs likely will hit smaller- and medium-sized judicial circuits, such as his, which covers Newberry, Laurens, Greenwood and Abbeville counties, the hardest because those counties typically don’t have enough local money to cover the costs.

“There are some circuits that depend totally on state dollars,” he said.

As for his circuit, Peace said he has two prosecutors who handle CDV cases in magistrate courts in the four counties, adding that the DUI prosecution program in the low-level courts has been “kind of piecemeal” with budget cuts.

Peace said although he might have to lay off several employees next fiscal year, he doesn’t want to get rid of the CDV or DUI first-offense prosecution programs.

“People are used to it,” he said. “It’s really hard for me to say we’re just not going to do it anymore.”

Reach Brundrett at (803)779-5022, ext. 106, or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.