Why Topeka, Kan., repealed its ban on domestic violence

The move was part of a successful bid to force the county district attorney to prosecute misdemeanor domestic-violence charges, which he wasn't doing because of budget cuts. For now, the crisis is averted, but the deeper budget problem for cities nationwide endures.

By , Staff writer

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    A group gathers outside the Shawnee County Court House in Topeka, Kan., Tuesday, before a Topeka city council work-study session. Leaders in Kansas's capital city repealed a local law against domestic violence late Tuesday as part of a controversial plan that supporters blamed on budget concerns but victims' advocates chastised as austerity run amok.
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The debate over who would pay for prosecuting domestic-battery crimes in Topeka, Kan., which raised issues about what services should be sacrificed to budget cuts, was resolved Wednesday, at least temporarily.

At a time when states and localities nationwide are struggling to balance their books, Shawnee County commissioners in Kansas recently made a tough decision, cutting the county district attorney office's $3.5 million budget by 10 percent.

District Attorney Chad Taylor had a novel response: On Sept. 8, he said he no longer had the money to prosecute misdemeanors, including domestic battery.

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The standoff ended Wednesday when Mr. Taylor agreed to prosecute the misdemeanors despite the strain on his department. A day earlier, the Topeka City Council had controversially lifted a ban on domestic violence in an effort to force Taylor's hand.

But the deeper fiscal challenges remain, and they point to the depth of budget cuts facing local governments. During the past two to three years, district attorney's offices have been forced “to do more with less,” says Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va.

The situation in Topeka is “not unprecedented,” he adds. For example:

  • Some services to victims of domestic violence have also been cut in North Carolina's Union County, and cases could be delayed.
  • The district attorney in Nevada's Clark County in April flatly refused an official request to cut his office by 9 percent.
  • Prosecutors in North Carolina's Wake County had to fill in as receptionists this summer to cover staffing cuts.

Mr. Taylor's actions in Kansas were “a high-profile way” to show the county the downside of digging too deeply with the budget knife, says Jeffrey Jackson, a professor of law at Washburn University in Topeka.

“What people don’t realize is district attorneys and prosecutors have a lot of discretion about what cases they will prosecute and what cases they bring and what cases they settle. This is the most blatant way to make the argument that, if they don’t have the budget, they have to pick and choose more,” Professor Jackson says.

“Everyone is outraged about this, so maybe this was a way of garnering the most attention,” he adds.

Taylor said the cuts prevented his staff from having the time or resources to evaluate and prosecute all misdemeanor charges within the Topeka city limits. But his office continued to prosecute misdemeanors cases, including domestic battery, in the wider county.

Though the city has its own prosecutor’s office, the municipal system was inadequate to handle such cases and, even if it could have, Taylor’s office did not give the city enough time to take up the slack, city officials said.

According to police officials, 21 people arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic battery since Sept. 8 have not been charged and therefore released.

The Topeka City Council tried to force Taylor's hand Tuesday by repealing elements of a city ordinance that banned domestic violence, as well as prostitution and animal cruelty. The idea was that, by removing the city ordinance, the legal burden for prosecution shifted to the county, meaning Taylor needed to take up the cases again.

It worked. But the ongoing problem of budget cutting hasn't gone away, says Jackson of Washburn University.

“There are always limited budgets.... It’s just gotten worse with the way budgets are now,” he says.

Social-service providers said that the dispute jeopardized victim safety.

Most domestic-violence cases in the county are misdemeanors “perpetrated by extremely dangerous offenders,” said Becky Dickinson, executive director for the YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment Program in Topeka, in a statement.

“These cases are not to be taken lightly. Victims rely on the criminal-justice system to hold their abusers accountable and help them gain safety,” Ms. Dickinson said.

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