Teenagers who commit violence with a romantic partner could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison under a bill discussed Wednesday by a Senate subcommittee.
Making violence in teen dating situations a felony is needed to address a history of domestic violence in South Carolina, advocates say. Half a dozen students from Ridge View High School in Richland County spoke in favor of the bill – called the Teen Dating Violence Prevention Act.
The bill defines teen dating violence as “physical, sexual, psychological or emotional violence between persons 18 years of age or younger within a dating relationship.” The proposed charge would not replace assault or rape charges – someone suspected of those crimes could also be charged with teen dating violence in certain situations.
Senators said they do not expect the bill to pass this year, but that they intend to push the issue next year.
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Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry, said he supports the impetus behind the bill – addressing violence in teen relationships – but that some specifics need to be ironed out before the bill moves forward.
“The penalty of the crime is severe, in addition to whatever the underlying penalty of the base crime was,” Hembree said. “Let’s say it was assault and battery, (and) it’s a 30-day offense – it just turned into a 10-year (and) 30-day offense.”
In addition to concerns about the penalty, Hembree said the bill’s current language is too vague.
“Talking about creating an emotional assault, if you will, or emotional harm, that’s a very difficult thing to try and prove,” Hembree said.
Hembree operates a law office with two other attorneys in Myrtle Beach that frequently handles criminal defense cases. He also worked the other side of the courtroom as a prosecutor from 1999 to 2013, during his time as solicitor for Horry and Georgetown counties.
He also said he was concerned that the bill says anyone convicted of the teen dating violence charge would not be eligible for pre-trial intervention. Hembree said he has found PTI a good way to change the behavior of young offenders.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, said he’d be open to allowing PTI in certain circumstances.
“The real thrust of this bill is making sure teens have the same ability to seek protection that adults do, and encouraging the education that needs to be out there,” Sheheen said. The restraining order provision is important, he said.
The bill would allow victims of abusive relationships to seek an order of protection or a restraining order without parental consent – so long as the victim is 16 or older. The bill would require parents or guardians to be notified within 24 hours of such an order being issued, however. Victims younger than 16 would have to have the consent of a parent or guardian to seek such an order.
Students told the legislators that current law does not protect young people well from domestic violence, and that circumstances of many young people’s relationships are different from those of adults.
“Most of us do not live with our significant others,” said Lynnise Brown, a junior. “Most of us are not married to them.”
In addition to creating a new criminal charge and allowing minors to seek orders of protection, the bill would require that sex education classes “appropriate for each level from 4-year-old kindergarten through 12th grade” to address teen dating violence.
Parents would be allowed to exempt their children from this instruction, as state law already allows for existing sex ed classes. Students told the lawmakers that such education would help teens identify abusive relationships and understand how to get out of them.
“I’m going to ask to be added as a cosponsor of this bill, because I believe that fighting for you is the right thing to do,” Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, told the students.
The students advocating for the bill were in part inspired by the case of Sierra Landry – a Lancaster County teen found shot to death in December 2013. Her boyfriend, Tanner Crolley, pleaded guilty one year later to killing her. Though Landry was 18 when slain, the two had dated for nearly two years before the killing.
Landry’s family members said when the teen tried to break things off with Crolley, he started harassing her – calling her at odd hours and sending her threatening Facebook messages.