Cross-posted on Citizen of the World.
I moved to Topeka about four and a half years ago for law school. I’ve made some friends, but it was always the plan to get the heck out of town as soon as I was admitted to the bar, if not before. Now, a year and a half after graduation, I’m still here. So I don’t really want to be here, and this week the Topeka City Council made it clear that the feeling is mutual.
This story starts way back in early September when the Shawnee County, KS District Attorney Chad Taylor announced that his office would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors – including domestic battery – due to budget cuts. Responsibility for prosecuting domestic battery cases would then fall to the Topeka municipal courts.
Well not if the Topeka City Council has anything to say about it!
Because, you see, the city is having budget difficulties as well. So it doesn’t have the resources to prosecute domestic violence cases either. What the logical response? If you answered “repeal the city’s domestic battery ordinance,” you’d be right!
The vote wasn’t even close; it was 7-3. The rationale behind this spectacularly boneheaded move is that if Topeka doesn’t have an ordinance outlawing domestic violence, then Topeka can’t prosecute that crime and the responsibility will fall back on the county. From the beginning, the city council has asserted that the District Attorney is the only office that is legally empowered to prosecute domestic battery cases in Topeka. (This is a claim that, despite some independent research, I can neither verify nor debunk.)
Oh, by the way, did I mention that it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month? Yeah…
In the end, the Shawnee County DA decided to continue prosecuting domestic battery cases. But that hardly seems like the point now. The fact remains that the city government – my city government – decided that it was perfectly acceptable to play political games with the lives of domestic violence survivors. Dozens of alleged domestic batterers have been released since early September, because no one was prosecuting them. As a woman, this is incredibly disturbing. (Not to mention horrifyingly embarrassing. No wonder no one takes Kansas seriously.)
It’s easy to be very hard on the Topeka City Council. But, if I’m honest, I wouldn’t want to be in their position. It’s a fact that city and state budgets are being squeezed all over the country. (This does not mean that I will be voting for a certain Chad Manspeaker in the next municipal election. I’ve got my eye on you, Councilman!)
The problem runs much deeper than a willingness to ignore domestic violence. This should be a lesson in what happens when cuts in spending take precedence over everything else. We hear a lot about having a smaller government. But in practice, this is what happens. The most vulnerable get left behind. This debate is more than just about jobs and the economy. It’s about the fundamental responsibility of government to keep people safe. Even at its most basic, a government needs to protect its citizens from people who wish to do them harm. That’s the social contract; we stick together for protection and everyone’s lives are better. In 2009 (the latest year I could find), the number of domestic violence cases were as high as they have been since 2000. The City of Topeka and Shawnee County decided to try to shirk that responsibility.
What the hell are they there for, then?
Featured image credit: Burt Kaufmann