South Carolina’s bail bond laws for accused criminal domestic abusers should be toughened to protect victims, House members were told Wednesday.
Victims advocate Laura Hudson said the bail law should be changed to include whether a suspect could be a danger to an individual and to consider more factors when determining bond.
The proposals were made the same day that opening arguments were heard for two suspects charged with murdering Kelly Hunnewell, a 33-year-old mother of four. While not a cause of domestic abuse, the suspects in Hunnewell’s slaying were out on bond awaiting trial at the time of her death – prompting public outrage and calls for bond reform.
In granting bail, state law now only considers whether an accused criminal is a threat to the community, Hudson said.
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Many S.C. magistrates say bail is granted to domestic violence suspects because they are not a danger to the community, she added. But each accused abuser remains a danger to their victim, she said.
Making that change, similar to federal law, also would make it clear domestic violence is a crime that escalates and often focuses on an individual victim, said Sara Barber, executive director of the S.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Hudson also said judges should use a more evidence-based approach when considering the criteria for bail bond. For example, judges should consider whether a suspect has a stable home situation, a job or a criminal history.
“We need as much information as possible,” Hudson said.
One obstacle judges face in setting bond is the absence of an incident report at a bond hearing, the S.C. House panel was told.
Now, officers sometimes are still out on patrol, doing their job and haven’t had time to submit the report, Hudson said.
Requiring that incident reports be available to judges who are determining bond within 24 hours or the arresting officer be present in court would help judges, House members were told.
“One of the most important things we heard today was that, quite often, the incident report is not making it to the bond hearing,” said state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who chairs the domestic violence committee.
Hudson also said a suspect should not be allowed to use personal recognizance bonds – essentially, just a promise to return to court – in domestic violence cases.
The suspect already has exhibited that he or she doesn’t have the ability to personally govern themselves, Hudson said, so their bond ought to be secured with property or money.
A victim or law enforcement officer also should be able to request an extension to the maximum 24-hour period that a suspect is held, Hudson said. A bond hearing still would be held to protect the suspect’s rights, but an extension could help protect the victim, giving them a chance to seek safety, she said.
“If law enforcement was making that request, it would indicate that they had serious concerns for that victim’s safety,” said Barber of the domestic violence coalition. In some cases, that extended time could be the difference between life or death for the victim, she said.
Rep. Erickson said the panel will take the testimony and compare it with the state’s current domestic violence laws before drafting legislation for the General Assembly to consider after it meets in January. Any proposed legislation cannot infringe on suspects’ constitutional rights, she said.