Topeka didn’t budget for your domestic abuse. Sorry. Kthanxbai.

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


Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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  1. Well, if Topeka is not going to prosecute domestic abuse, are they also not going to prosecute burning-bed cases? Or all of a woman’s male relatives getting together and beating the shit out of her abuser?

    Whenever you remove a legal constraint, it means you are leaving it to the citizenry on how to resolve issues. And no, they don’t do that very well when it comes to violence.

    Thank for the post, Mindy.

    1. I don’t know for sure, but it may be that, because DV cases involve an intimate partner, there are provisions that remove the alleged assailant from the home. So while regular assault and battery laws may apply, they fall a little short.

      Also, this only applied for misdemeanor domestic battery, which basically battery sans weapon. Aggravated domestic battery is a felony, which would still be prosecuted by the county no matter what the outcome of this particular squabble.

  2. Ugh, indeed. Really, I think this was one of the most bass-ackwards decisions they could have made… not only from a safety position, but from a simple “not being held in disgust” viewpoint.

  3. Is this a bug or a feature of lower tax rates? My understanding is that the purpose of decades of tax cuts is to bankrupt the government so that regressive right-wingers can eliminate all the functions of government that they don’t feel like enforcing. The “we have to cut these government functions” has been the plan all along, and they created the budget shortfalls in order to make it happen.

    1. It’s so they’ll have more money to go after abortion providers. I grew up in Kansas and if there is one thing they’ll spare no expense on it’s them baby killers.

    2. My more right-leaning friends seem to think that draining the government coffers will somehow surgically excise only those things they don’t like: pulling building permits, accomodating people with disabilities, and registering their firearms. It also means flooded streets, early-released prisoners, and uninspected cantalopes.

  4. There’s actually been a small development on the actually prosecuting cases front, and it’s not a good one. via Dispatches from the Culture Wars. http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2011/10/13/funding-and-domestic-violence/

    It seems that Shawnee County DA has agreed to prosecute the cases if the city of Topeka agrees to cut his office a check for $350,000.

    Moreover, while the city & county are playing not-my-fault, cases have been allowed to go unprosecuted because of the legal limbo. Since September, 18 men have been able to walk away from arrests without charges, per the NY Times.

  5. I’m sorry, I know it’s childish. But I just can’t get past “Chad Manspeaker”. That sounds like a name someone would make up to troll feminist message boards.

  6. Now all the bible quoting, alcohol abusing fuck-faces can go old testament on their women.

    I bet they’re ecstatic that they can start putting all the blame for their fucked lives back on the women where it belongs.

    Maybe we can start a drive for free bear mace for the women of Topeka?

  7. If battery cases cannot be brought against men beating their wives does the reverse apply. If a wife accidentally kicked some bastard’s kneecap while he was slumbering would she get a get out of jail free card?

  8. I want to think that this is more about political posturing and city budgets but I guess it doesn’t look that way. Of course the unintended consequence that comes to mind will be the additional cost of processing and prosecuting felony assault cases when law enforcement start arresting suspects for more serious crimes to make the system work or domestic violence situations escalate into more serious felony assaults. And I wonder if they’d be as willing to stop arresting folk for minor marijuana possession charges to save money instead.

  9. Feature, not a bug. There’s also a pretty good history of this, dating back to Phil Gramm. He and other right-wing people designed California’s prop 13 specifically as a change in strategy: attacking social spending one program at a time failed because all programs have constituencies to defend them. But taxes have no constituency.

    Common Cause has collected a lot of information and primary sources on this movement. My favorite is a newsletter from the pre-“everybody puts this on the web” days which contains a piece written by Gramm himself explaining why the Head Start Program is at the top of their list of programs to be shut down. The reason – not kidding – is *because* of its success. They call it the “bad example” because by all objective and empirical measures it is an undisputed success. This may make people believe that government can do something well. Therefore, anything the government actually *does* do well are the most important programs to shut down. To explain how to help undernourished children otherwise Gramm writes some free market magic will fix everything once the government is out of the picture (the usual suspects rhetoric).

  10. More on feature not bug:

    If the right-wing – leaders, pundits, rank and file – actually cared about “fiscal responsibility” they would go into apoplexy over $35 billion (and counting?) of money that simply disappeared in Iraq. We do not hear a peep out of them over this.

    If the right-wing – all levels – actually cared about “national security” they would go berserk over Rove outing Plame (that blew not only her cover but everyone who worked with her and all who worked for front companies she worked for – possibly the whole searching-for-WMDs operation). They rallied behind all the smears against her instead.

    Reading right-wingers’ comments on other blogs (anecdotal, I know) the rhetoric goes something like “well it sounds like a good program but we just can’t afford it – we need to fix the deficit first.” Yeah, the deficit your heros causes. Thanks.

    Feature, not bug. And they can barely contain their smugness when they tell us there’s no money left.

  11. This sounds to me like an overreaction to what happened here. There are city ordinances and state statutes. Kansas has a State statute on Domestic Battery, which could not be repealed by a city. The city only repeals its local ordinances. Police still need to enforce the law.

    And, these are misdemeanor batteries here. I know this won’t be very popular, but a slap is a misdemeanor battery. A black eye is a felony. If a woman slaps her husband across the check, that’s misdemeanor domestic violence.

    While we do need to take all violent crime seriously, the reality is that there is inevitably a shortage of resources, and there are degrees of criminality.

    1. In Kansas, domestic battery is a misdemeanor until the third conviction, then it’s a felony. (KSA 21-3412a(3)) Also, aggravated battery is a felony (i.e. battery with a weapon or recklessly causing great bodily harm KSA 21-3414).

      But the problem here is that the municipality and the county were trying to pass the buck. It’s just indicative the priority DV is given (or lack of priority). And since of of the ways DV becomes a felony in Kansas is by repeated convictions, if no one prosecutes the misdemeanors, a spouse could just go on slapping their partner around with no consequences. As long as it didn’t involve a weapon. (I exclude recklessness, because that generally negates intent.)

      The only reason this turned out sort of OK is because the county decided to continue prosecuting DV misdemeanors. If it hadn’t, domestic abuse, as defined by the misdemeanor statute, would be effectively legal. And that is a big deal.

      1. I shouldn’t have said “negate intent,” because that’s not what I mean. But it’s just a different standard that I don’t think applies as much to DV cases.

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