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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