Yes, really. Domestic violence is no longer a crime in the city of Topeka. And – like so many bizarre and dangerous decisions being made around the country these days – it’s because of the budget.
Topeka’s city council found itself unable to come up with the money to prosecute those charged with domestic violence, a budget shortfall of about $1 million for the upcoming year. Short on money, annoyed with how the county prosecutor had been pushing domestic violence cases off onto the city, and believing the move would force the county to start prosecuting domestic violence under Kansas state law, the city council voted to repeal the ordinance that made domestic violence a crime. Defendants can still be tried under the state law that makes domestic violence a crime, but no city ordinance now prohibits it.
The city found itself in this bind after the county prosecutor’s office, facing budget shortfalls of its own, decided to stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes in the county courts. Misdemeanors are crimes punishable by up to one year in a county jail and/or a fine, probation, community service, or other requirements; common misdemeanors in states around the country include assault, shoplifting, and personal use of certain illegal drugs, like marijuana. Since “domestic violence” is typically defined as assault that involves people in a familial or intimate relationship (past or present), a first offense is often categorized as a misdemeanor.
Since September, eighteen people have been arrested for domestic violence in Topeka. All of them have been set free, because neither the city nor the county will prosecute. The city says it can’t even afford the $74-a-day jail fee from the county required to hold arrestees long enough to prosecute them, should the judge deny bail.
The Shawnee County prosecutor’s office claims it’s overwhelmed with felony cases after an upswing in gang violence in Topeka, and that it just doesn’t have the resources to prosecute misdemeanors. The city council says the same. But decriminalizing domestic violence merely pits city against county in a game of chicken in which victims become the losers.
Most cases of domestic violence are never reported to police, and one of the many reasons for this silence is because victims often fear retaliation from their abusers. “You got me arrested” or “you got me sent to jail” is as good a reason as any for violence from someone who needs little provocation to attack or injure a significant other or family member. There is no reason to assume that a failure to prosecute on the state’s or city’s part will prevent this kind of retaliation.
Worse, knowing that they won’t be prosecuted may further embolden abusers. Contrary to popular belief, it’s difficult in many cases for acquaintances, business associates, or even other family members to spot an abuser. Long-term abuse occurs in situations in which the abuser feels reasonably comfortable that he or she won’t get caught or face consequences; these are relationships in which the abuser enjoys the power that comes with terrorizing someone else with impunity. Abusers are bullies; and, as any kid who has ever handed over her lunch money on the playground knows, ignoring bullies does not make them go away. It makes them worse.
Domestic violence has long-term, “trickle-down” effects as well. Not only will one in four women be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime (about 85 percent of domestic violence victims are female), but children who witness domestic violence are twice as likely to become abusers themselves – and as many as 60 percent of abusers who commit domestic violence against a partner abuse children in the household as well. Is this really the future to which the Topeka city council wants to condemn its children? More to the point, is it worth saving a million dollars to create another generation of abusers who will have to be prosecuted – and who may permanently injure or even kill their victims – in the future?
Perhaps this was a desperate measure called for by desperate times, but it’s one that leaves Topeka residents in dire straits. Decriminalizing domestic abuse sends the message that it’s just not that big a deal if Topeka residents can feel safe in their own homes. It’s not that big a deal if parents beat their children, or if one sibling terrorizes another, or if a wife, husband, boyfriend or girlfriend is beaten by the one person who is most responsible for supporting and protecting them. Physical injury, intimidation, isolation, manipulation, and threats, taking place in one’s own home and involving one’s own children: it’s no big deal, to Topeka’s city council and the Shawnee County prosecutor’s office. (And to state that domestic violence is no big deal during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, of all things, is just irony on top of cruelty.)
But it is. It’s a huge deal. And Topekans just lost.