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Topeka, Kan., Decriminalizes Domestic Violence for Budget Austerity


Shirts decorated by the victims and family members of victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

CREDIT: Flickr / claudiasnell

Domestic violence prosecutions have become a political bargaining chip in a heated budget dispute between Shawnee County and the city of Topeka, Kan.

Topeka’s city council voted 7-3 earlier this month to eliminate the city’s ordinance that defines domestic violence as a crime, an action that effectively released as many as 30 domestic abuse suspects from jail.

The vote was the city’s response to another outlandish decision—Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor’s announcement last month that his office would no longer pursue domestic violence cases due to county budget cuts. Not wanting to incur the cost of prosecutions, the Topeka councilors were attempting to force the county to resume prosecutions by repealing its anti-domestic violence ordinance.

Taylor now says Shawnee County will review all domestic violence cases, but only prosecute them on an individual basis. Because of the budget cuts, “we have to prioritize what it is that we’re prosecuting,” Taylor said.

Unfortunately, this could result in hasty and inefficient prosecutions in a county that already experiences difficulties in addressing domestic violence. In 2009, nearly 2,000 domestic violence incidents occurred in Shawnee County—the vast majority of them in Topeka—yet only a third of the incidents resulted in arrests.

Becky Dickinson, director of the Topeka YWCA’s Center for Safety and Empowerment, warned of the potential risks resulting from a void in prosecutions.

“It can escalate for the victim,” she said. “If charges aren’t filed, [suspects] can be released and they can be angry because they were arrested.”

Victims’ advocates are also concerned Topeka could set a precedent for other cities facing high costs associated with prosecuting domestic violence.

While budget cuts are certainly necessary and unavoidable in today’s economic environment, the actions of the Topeka city council and the Shawnee County district attorney should give legislators at all levels of government pause as they consider their own austerity measures. 

Devon Brown is an intern with Campus Progress.

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