3 courtrooms to focus on criminal domestic violence
By Schuyler Kropf, The Post and Courier
Monday, August 20, 2007
Charleston County is on the verge of dedicating three courtrooms exclusively to prosecuting criminal domestic violence cases.
The county's top prosecutor and magistrate on Friday said a compromise has been reached that could see the courts up and running by Nov. 1.
If it happens, Charleston would join several other South Carolina counties already seeing abuse cases decline since going to a separate prosecution track.
'The bottom line is this: We have a serious domestic violence issue in Charleston County,' new 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said Friday in detailing the compromise with Chief Magistrate Henry Guerard.
Charleston has gone without an exclusive CDV court for a number of reasons. For some time, the solicitor's office had sought a single designated courtroom to handle all the cases that come in countywide.
The advantage, officials contend, is that it puts offenders under the view of one court that can track their punishment and their progress.
But county magistrates were reluctant to give up jurisdictional control, arguing that Charleston's magistrate system and its 90-mile geographical length aren't suitedfor one courtroom gathering spot to cover one category of crime.
Now, the magistrates cover jury areas, which means that misdemeanor criminal domestic violence cases — as well as other misdemeanor crimes such as traffic violations, theft and assault — are handled where the violation occurred, decided by jurors picked locally.
Under the compromise, three courtrooms would be designated to hear the CDV cases: one in the North Area, which also will service East Cooper, with Magistrate Debbie Summey; one in Magistrate Leroy Linen's Johns Island court, for cases from West Ashley and the local islands; and another in Magistrate Patricia Dixon's Ravenel court, which would cover the lower part of the county.
The courts will hear cases filed from unincorporated Charleston County, starting with offenders cited in the next few weeks.
CDV violations cover a variety of relationships. Generally they include family members, people living in the same household or a couple sharing children.
Charleston County has been behind the state trend in increasing attention on criminal domestic violence courts. Several other counties established their courts long ago, after the General Assembly in 2006 funded $2.2 million specifically for solicitors to hire criminal domestic violence prosecutors.
The funding did not require county magistrates or judges to set up special CDV courts, though many counties did.
Former Charleston Solicitor Ralph Hoisington used the state money to hire a staff CDV prosecutor, who for most of the past year has been helping to prosecute cases in North Charleston.
Having a dedicated CDV courtroom will impose a consistency and stability 'we just don't have with our current set-up,' Wilson said.
Additionally, victims' services and safety will be enhanced, she said, and victims will be contacted by the victim advocate and prosecutor to discuss safety concerns and explain court procedures.
Victims who are kept informed and engaged in the legal process often are more amenable to participating in the prosecution of their cases, Wilson said.
Defendants also are more likely to comply if they know a court is watching, she added.
A separate CDV track will go a long way toward addressing a problem that strikes hundreds of families a year, yet often goes unaddressed, Wilson said.
'Why treat CDV cases differently than any other case? Because they are different,' she said.
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