News & Politics

No Jail for Beating Up Women? Topeka Let Up to 30 Alleged Batterers Walk Free, After Briefly Decriminalizing Domestic Violence to Save Money

As the county and city volleyed back and forth over the budget, suspected batterers went free.

The news that Topeka, Kansas, actually overturned its local domestic violence ban during a budgetary tussle--an effort to force the county DA's hand in prosecuting cases--has made national waves. Emails flooded into officials' inboxes and outrage spread on social media.

After the firestorm hit, the DA said he would again reinstate prosecution of domestic violence cases on a case-by-case basis, but this conclusion was reached only after an undue amount of pressure and attention. The city didn't want to pay to prosecute domestic violence misdemeanors. The county didn't want to pay, either. So women and other victims of domestic violence were paying instead, pawns in a power play between officials.

Who knows how many more times this sort of thing will happen around the country if victims' rights are treated as something that can be trimmed from the budget and shunted on to the next guy?

During this budget back and forth, a game of chicken between the DA and the city council, a substantial number of suspected abusers have actually walked free(reports range from 18-30). And women's advocates are now worried that around the country, copycat measures will spring up and victims of domestic violence will be put in grave danger in the name of fiscal austerity.

Let's not forget these alleged abusers of their partners and children have gotten off the hook because of the "cost," while our nation continues its wildly expensive war on drugs, including incarcerating nonviolent pot-smokers (particularly young men of color). Even in the very Kansas county where these suspected batterers are now free because their crimes are "misdemeanors," misdemeanor offenses relating to drugs and shoplifting have not been given the same "tag! you're it!" response by the dueling lawmakers.

Glad we have our priorities in order.

As Kaili Joy Gray writes at Daily Kos:

Tough economic times call for tough choices, right? Are these the kinds of decisions our leaders will be forced to make in cities and counties and states across the country? Which laws to repeal? Which criminals to set free? Which victims to abandon?

This is what austerity and shared sacrifice looks like in Topeka, Kansas: asking victims of violent crimes to sacrifice their right to justice because justice isn't in the budget.

To understand what happened, and why it might be repeated, let's back up to early September. According to the Kansas City star, "Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor announced that a 10 percent budget cut would force him to end his office’s prosecution of misdemeanor cases, almost half of which last year were domestic battery cases." 

In other words, the office was passing the buck on all misdemeanors down to the city of Topeka.

But because domestic violence cases were so prevalent among misdemeanors--and because prosecuting them was so "burdensome" to their budget--the Topeka City Council wanted to force his hand and send the cases back up to the state. They felt they didn't have the resources to handle the battery charges. So instead of trying to work out some sort of deal, they took their now infamous vote, essentially decriminalizing domestic violence in their city by a majority of 7-3, and passed the buck back to Taylor.

In the days leading up to the vote, Kari Ann Rinker of Kansas NOW tried to talk to her lawmakers to see what could be done. Here's her account of the frustration she encountered:

After conversations with all arms of government involved, I’ve had my fill of listening to each of them and their finger-pointing and blaming games. I have a set of 5-year-old twins at home and it felt a bit like being in one of their scuffles…she did it…no SHE did it…it wasn’t me! Meanwhile, the people who are getting caught in the middle of this finger-pointing are the victims, who are the only ones who remain truly, blameless. 

Indeed, the safety of victims in the aftermath of this public fight brought worry to those who work with them in the area:

Becky Dickinson, a program director with the Y.W.C.A., which is the primary provider of services for victims of domestic violence in the county, said there was concern that the lack of charges for those being arrested for misdemeanor domestic violence — which could include verbal threats, pushing or slapping — would encourage retaliation.

The common pattern of domestic violence--recurring, escalating, with cries for help prompting retaliation--certainly suggests that this would be an issue, and as Daily Kos' Gray noted, domestic violence is widespread in the area.

Based on the state's own records, Gray notes that there were domestic violence incidents every 22 minutes, an arrest about every 40 minutes, and a murder related to domestic violence about every 10 days: 

The numbers don't improve if you look only at the county and city involved. In 2009, there were 1,968 incidents of domestic violence in Shawnee County, 1,733 of them in Topeka. Only 32.7 percent of those incidents resulted in arrests.

The high incidence of these cases may explain why they're being treated so callously--they're expensive. But that can't be it. If the lawmakers really cared, they'd work something out together, not play a game with women's lives at stake.

In fact, here's something bigger at work here, particularly on the day when the "Let Women Die" bill prepares to be debated in our nation's Congress.

All year long in the name of the budget, women's concerns, their lives, their bodily autonomy have been a political bargaining chip, or worse, a ploy to distract from the discussion of the economy and rile up the misogynist vote.

Topeka's abandonment of domestic violence victims may be a result of trickle-down misogyny, part of a larger pattern of women's rights being set back across the country.

It was only a matter of time before sacrificing women for the budget resulted in situations like this one. It won't be the last of its kind.

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.