It’s no secret that Americans are trying to save money, and it’s not just American households. The inclination to pinch every penny and to make sacrifices by saving instead of spending is taking place in City Hall and State Capitol buildings across the United States. Even the White House has opted for austerity with deep cuts to the federal budget in an attempt to curb the growing deficit. But the City of Topeka, Kansas, may have taken austerity to an extreme: The City Council has chosen to decriminalize domestic violence because it does not have the money to prosecute cases.
The unusual move stems from a fiscal crisis that unfolded at the county level. The City of Topeka is the capital city of Kansas and also the county seat of Shawnee County. Topeka has a large jurisdictional metropolitan area which encapsulates other counties as well. Shawnee County has been facing a string of budgetary concerns which lead to a 10 percent cut in the budget of the District Attorney’s Office. Chad Taylor, Shawnee County DA, warned the County Commissioners that the reduced budget would force him to immediately stop handling the misdemeanor cases which could be taken by the Topeka City Attorney. These included domestic violence cases which occurred within the Topeka city limits. According to Taylor, the Topeka Municipal Code allows for prosecution of domestic violence and other misdemeanors in Municipal Court.
Since early September, at least 30 domestic violence cases have been dropped by the Shawnee County DA. Several individuals suspected of domestic violence have been arrested and promptly released due to lack of prosecution. The City Council finally decided to introduce a proposal to repeal the city ordinance which classifies domestic violence as a misdemeanor offense. According to City Council members, there was no alternative since the City lacks the funds to properly staff the City Attorney’s office and procure jail space for offenders.
Chad Taylor made one final offer to review all domestic violence cases within the City of Topeka for a one-time fee of $350,000. Topeka City Manager Dan Stanley warned the Shawnee County DA that the City Attorney was not prepared to handle the cases. It wasn’t so much a matter of staffing or expertise which prevented the city from taking the misdemeanors: It was rather a monetary issue. The City of Topeka is strapped for cash, just like Shawnee County. The City Council instead voted 7-3 to repeal the domestic violence ordinance.
There were strong displays of disapproval at the City Council meeting. A woman threw dice to illustrate what she thinks the City Council is doing with the lives of domestic violence victims. Others offered what they thought were better alternatives for saving money, such as decriminalizing possession of marijuana. Some council members thought that the vote to repeal would send a wrong message to the community.
The bottom line behind the vote was to force the Shawnee County DA to prosecute the cases since prosecution of domestic violence is covered under state law. The City Manager stated that they can only afford to pay the DA about $200,000. The DA’s office has yet to respond.