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Entries in Domestic Violence Law (1)

Wednesday
Oct122011

Citing Budget Crunch, Topeka Repeals Domestic Violence Law

iStockophoto/Thinkstock(TOPEKA, Kan.) -- Topeka, Kan., repealed its domestic violence law Tuesday night as part of a government budget fight that pits the city against the county.

Despite widespread criticism by women's advocacy groups, the city council voted to remove the law on domestic violence misdemeanors from its books, de-criminalizing it within city limits. City officials said the move was meant to show that the city will not fund the prosecution of domestic violence offenders, putting the burden on the county and the district attorney instead.

The issue boils down to budget.

"The city isn't suggesting that we don't prosecute misdemeanor crimes when there is spousal or child abuse, but we need to have an understanding with the DA and the county that it's their operation," said Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten.

The council vote comes after Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor announced last month that he would stop prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence incidents because of a 10 percent cut to his budget. By refusing to prosecute the crimes, Taylor hoped to force the city of Topeka to prosecute them instead. Tuesday's vote proved otherwise.

The DA's office has prosecuted the crimes for over 10 years, according to Bunten, and should continue to do so because they are equipped with the necessary support staff for victims, offenders, and families. Topeka, he said, shouldn't have to absorb those costs.

"We opted out of the state statue last night which says municipalities should prosecute these crimes," said Mayor Bunten. "That was done so that it couldn't be thrown into our laps."

The budget fight began when the Shawnee County Commission, made up of three elected officials, cut all county department's budgets by 10 percent this year, a result of tough economic times, according to Mary M. Thomas, who was appointed to the panel just two weeks ago.

"Everyone is facing this problem across the country, and [all county departments] were first informed in early summer that, because of the loss of income due to the devaluation of real estate, everyone would have to share equally in the pain," she said.

Thomas said that Taylor, the DA, was the only official that chose not to participate in budget discussions, and when his department's budget was cut along with the rest, he decided to stop prosecuting domestic violence crimes in protest.

"What he did was he chose a population of folks that rarely has a voice, often in an economic situation that they cannot take matters into their own hands through civil process, to get the headlines he needed to make the commission give in. Unfortunately it's been a matter of giving in or calling someone's bluff," Thomas said.

The new budget restrictions, she noted, would not go into effect until January. Taylor announced that he would stop the prosecutions in September.

While the city council and the county commissioners figure out who will prosecute the crimes, those charged with domestic violence since September -- 18 people, according to Topeka police -- have been released without trial or sentencing. One individual has since been arrested again for domestic violence against his wife, according to Bunten.

For domestic violence victims and advocates, the government's failure to prosecute crimes while fighting over budget issues is a dangerous precedent.

The Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence has been an outspoken critic of the fight, saying that the government should be prioritizing domestic violence justice, "not repealing city ordinances, not refusing to prosecute because of budget cuts, not tossing the safety of victims back and forth between city and county government and prosecutors; not reducing or omitting funding for critical services and responses. This isn't about budgets, it's about priorities."

Both city and county officials say they will meet to discuss the issue and try and find a solution. The district attorney's office did not immediately return calls for comment.

Bunten said he thinks the two parties will be able to find at least a temporary solution.

"Will we help them out for a short time? Yeah, I think we will. But the city of Topeka has run its finances well," Bunten said.

Bunten, a Republican, said his city has managed its finances better than the county, which overspent on new baseball fields and swimming pools.

Thomas, the new Shawnee County commissioner, countered that those projects were funded through grants and that the county is struggling financially just like thousands of other communities, because of falling tax revenue due to the real estate market slump.

"We really do take the protection of our citizens very seriously," she said. "This will not be left, this will be managed, it will be resolved."

Thomas noted that while the national attention Shawnee has received for the fight has made negotiations more difficult, the situation does represent how tough economic times are causing cities to make decisions with far-reaching consequences.

"These are life and death decisions," she said. "Have we met the fire code requirements, this old expensive equipment, is it up to date? It's literally that kind of decision, when we have hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars less to work with."

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