Topeka, Kansas considers decriminalizing domestic violence to avoid prosecuting cases

Last night, in between approving city expenditures and other routine agenda items, the Topeka, Kansas City Council debated one rather controversial one: decriminalizing domestic violence.

Here’s what happened: Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, facing a 10% budget cut, announced that the county would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors, including domestic violence cases, at the county level. Finding those cases suddenly dumped on the city and lacking resources of their own, the Topeka City Council is now considering repealing the part of the city code that bans domestic battery. The thinking here is that the county won’t let domestic violence go unpunished in Topeka and so will be forced to step in and start prosecuting it again if the city won’t. Basically, it’s a big game of chicken–where the “chicken” is, I suppose, the chump who won’t allow domestic abusers to walk free?

Of course, if you’d somehow gotten the impression that domestic violence is not really all that much of a priority for the county (which stopped prosecuting the cases almost a month ago) or the city (which is seriously considering officially legalizing the crime), think again. On the contrary, everyone involved professes to believe, as the DA’s office said, “that domestic violence is a crime that should be taken seriously and charged.” It’s just that everyone wants someone else to pay for it. And honestly, as deep cuts to state and local governments across the country take their toil, it’s hard to blame them too harshly for that. Thanks, austerity!

But while this clusterfuck is getting sorted out, domestic violence advocates in Topeka say it’s already putting vulnerable people at increased risk. Since the county stopped prosecuting the crimes on September 8th, it has turned back 30 domestic violence cases. Sixteen people have been arrested for misdemeanor domestic battery and then released from the county jail after charges weren’t filed. “Letting abusive partners out of jail with no consequences puts victims in incredibly dangerous positions,” said Becky Dickinson of the YWCA. “The abuser will often become more violent in an attempt to regain control.” The YMCA also said that some survivors associated with their Center for Safety and Empowerment were afraid for their safety if the dispute wasn’t resolved soon.

The City Council is expected to reach a decision next week. As an alternative to the “decriminalize domestic violence plan,” the county DA has also offered to continue prosecuting the cases in exchange for a one-time payment from the city, although it seems unclear if this is a feasible option. I’ll echo Jo Charay, a survivor who spoke at the Council meeting last night: “I just ask that somehow there has to be a resolution.” Seriously.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

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  • Shannon Drury


  • nazza

    I mean, if your budget is tight, decriminalize parking fines. But not…domestic violence.

    • B. McGee

      I agree that domestic violence can’t be ignored but parking fines potentially generate revenue so decriminalizing them would only make the budget situation worse…..
      Try picking something else to abolish so that your argument makes more sense, please.

  • Andrea

    Wow. Only if you have been in a domestic violence case can you understand how twisted and terrible of a situation it is. And more times than not there are kids involved that absolutely should not be. It is never solved by simply calling the police. Usually it gets worse from there.

  • Jessica

    hmm… I am a victim of one last week in Topeka. They are prosecuting and he is still in jail with a 10K cash bond…

    • James

      Not to take away from your experience but perhaps they are targeting victims of crimes who are lower income or women of color?

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, facing a 10% budget cut, announced that the county would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanors, including domestic violence cases

    Wait…why on Earth were they categorizing domestic violence as a “misdemeanor” in the first place? If it’s a physical assault isn’t that felony?

    • Marya Hart

      In most states, domestic assault laws mirror regular assault laws. In my state, a misdemeanor assault is one in which no bones are broken and no weapon is used. Domestic abuse laws here make it possible to prosecute some things as felonies which normally would be misdemeanors (e.g. repeated violations of a restraining order, repeated misdemeanor-level assaults) but in general, most domestic abuse is a misdemeanor crime.

      • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

        Thanks for the info. Huh. Those sound like some laws that need changing though!

      • Christy

        Marya Hart’s state has similar laws to mine. Misdemeanor domestic assault is an assault + family relationship (including dating), with no weapon used and no serious injury. The typical jail time for this crime is probably a week–definitely less than a month. Second time in 10 years, it is a gross misdemeanor with probably a month jail time (though it could be much shorter). Third time in 10 years, or with a weapon used or serious injury, it is a felony domestic assault and the jail or prison time is much higher.

        One problem with this arrangement is that if he beats her up with fists and she fights back with a knife, even if the injuries on each side are equivalent and not major, he would get a misdemeanor and she could potentially be charged with a felony.

        When I first started working in the criminal justice system, I was definitely surprised by the idea that domestic assault was a misdemeanor with sentences sometimes as short as a couple of days in jail. But I believe this is typical for most states.

  • Amber Versola

    There is something you can do! I created this event last night, and my state coordinator called me today to tell me that it is working. Please spread the word!!/event.php?eid=118721108234744

    By the way, it doesn’t matter where you live. Topeka and Shawnee County elected officials need to know that the entire world is outraged by their actions (and lack there of) – and the victims of domestic violence who are currently living in fear need to know that someone is fighting for them!

    • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      Thanks for this too.

  • Havlová

    The “Shawnee County District Attorney’s office” didn’t make that decision, because offices don’t make decisions. People made decisions. And the Shawnee County District Attorney is *SURPRISE* a man(!) named Chadwick J. Taylor. He is responsible for this decision.

    He could have decided to decriminalize drugs, certain immigration violations, or other minor offenses that would have actually *benefited* the community to do away with. Instead, loudly demonstrating his priorities, he decided to start the decriminalization process with laws that predominately protect women.

    He can be reached at: • 785.233.8200×4330 • Fax: 785.291.4909
    200 SE 7th Street, Room 214, Topeka, KS, 66603

    *Side note: I am actually a prison abolitionist, but when decriminalizing, one must start with behaviors, currently considered crimes, that either hurt no one or only hurt oneself. We do not currently have any societal mechanisms in place to hold people accountable for harm to others, other than the criminal justice system, so starting decriminalization with crimes that ACTUALLY HURT ANOTHER PERSON is simply an expression of contempt for the survivors/victims of such crimes.

  • Jessica Murphy

    Today’s society has so many powerful influences, such as the media, politics, tradition etc., that try to dictate the way in which people “should act”. Women and young girls are told that they need to be skinny, feminine, and “beautiful” (and by this I mean in the way society chooses to define beauty) while these influences also teach young men and boys that they need to be strong and tough, sometimes even violent, in order to live up to the standards of masculinity. Sending the message to the world that domestic violence is acceptable by making it legal is ludicrous. Allowing these criminals to be free without facing any possibilities of jail or prison time (or even a punishment at all for that matter) will only cause more harm to society. Our prisons are filled with people who are not harmful to others. If any crimes should be decriminalized it should be the ones in which the offender, if anyone, is the only one put in harm’s way. It certainly should not be the dangerous domestic abusers causing serious injury (and sometimes death) to the one’s closest to them.

    The mere thought of this being a message that is sent out to society, that domestic violence is not only acceptable but legal as well, is unfathomable. People try to raise their children to be happy, confident, upstanding citizens and yet we have politics telling them the hell with it.

    What if many of these abusers, especially the ones who were reported, arrested, and subsequently released because the DA and city of Topeka didn’t want to pay for their prosecutions, become more violent in retaliation towards their victims? What if the city of Topeka has an increase of murder cases because they were too ignorant to get these dangerous criminals off the streets in the first place? And to the man in charge of this atrocious notion, Mr. Chadwick J. Taylor, what exactly are you going to have to say to the families of all of these victims?

  • Keith Darling-Brekhus

    Sheer lunacy, though it looks like the DA has taken up prosecuting the cases again…