In Kansas, Domestic Violence Prosecutions Take A Back Seat To Politics

Update 10/14: The district attorney has agreed to hear some domestic violence cases in Topeka.

Budget cuts are usually painful for local governments, but in Topeka, Kan., a fight over money could truly hurt constituents. The mayor and city council voted Tuesday night to repeal the city’s ordinance against domestic violence, jeopardizing abuse victims’ access to justice for the sake of politics.

The decision is the result of a month of political maneuvering. Both the city and county governments in Topeka are facing budget restrictions, which prompted the county district attorney last month to stop prosecuting misdemeanors committed inside city limits — including domestic assault, battery not involving a weapon, and other crimes. In reaction, the city government is trying to pressure the county into resuming these prosecutions by making it clear that the issue is not the city’s responsibility.

“I think it draws a line in the sand,” said Dan Stanley, the interim city manager, at Tuesday’s city council meeting. “It says we will remove all ambiguity from this question, and we will negotiate from a position of strength.”

Many local governments around the country are facing a similarly difficult budget situation, leading them to make cuts to necessary programs and functions. Other cities might not make as bold a move as Topeka, but the situation demonstrates the budget crisis common elsewhere. And when cuts are made, they often disproportionately affect the people who most need help and offer a chilling representation of political priorities.

Throughout the political fight, domestic violence cases have been largely dismissed in Topeka. Since the DA’s September decision to stop prosecuting new cases, there have been at least 35 reported cases of domestic battery or assault; however, 18 of the jailed people have been released without facing charges. The city is banking on the fact that their dramatic decision to repeal the anti-domestic violence ordinance will coerce the county to once again handle the issue. For now, the situation is uncertain, and domestic violence cases are still not being prosecuted.

The move, although ostensibly based more in a budget squabble than in an intentional effort to condone violence, could have dangerous ramifications for Topeka residents. Domestic violence is already under-reported because victims often fear retaliation; now, with many of those cases being left unresolved, people experiencing domestic violence face greater risks and fewer options.

“I absolutely do not understand it,” Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said after the vote. “It’s really outrageous that they’re playing with family safety to see who blinks first. People could die while they’re waiting to straighten this out.”

Ideally, the county would take the city’s decision as a cue to resume prosecutions. Both governments, however, are continuing to insist that they do not have the resources necessary to carry out trials for these cases. If neither side caves and agrees to accept responsibility for prosecuting domestic violence cases, Topeka residents will continue to be in legal limbo, with potentially devastating effects on people experiencing abuse.

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