October 12, 2011; Source: Christian Science MonitorA high stakes game of chicken between county and city government in Topeka Kansas temporarily ended today, when Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor agreed to start prosecuting domestic violence misdemeanors again. His action was in response to a 7-3 vote by the Topeka City Council on October 11 to repeal its local ordinance prohibiting domestic violence. While interim city manager Dan Stanley insists that the city council’s intention was to “remove all ambiguity from the question” of who must prosecute domestic violence misdemeanors, thereby forcing the county’s hand, budget brinksmanship left victims and victim advocates stranded without protection of law. 

Since September 8, the District Attorney’s office had stopped prosecutions for misdemeanor crimes within the capital city limits, citing steep budget cuts.  According to city spokesman David Bevens, the county discontinued prosecuting 30 pending domestic battery cases already in the pipeline; furthermore, 23 people newly arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic battery had already been released without charges.

What a way to mark National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Becky Dickinson, executive director of the Topeka-based YWCA Center for Safety and Empowerment Program, warns that while most domestic violence cases are classified as misdemeanors, that doesn’t take away from their being serious crimes “perpetrated by extremely dangerous offenders.”

The city defended its decision as the only way to gain a better position in negotiating with county officials about who should bear the costs of prosecution. City officials say they don’t have sufficient staff or jail space to prosecute such crimes. Negotiations are now continuing between Shawnee County and the City of Topeka. 

This particular situation is localized, but domestic violence victim services are not unprecedented elsewhere, according to Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.  This is one consequence of sustained revenue shortfalls facing state and local governments, which as covered here, are likely to get worse.

This situation also highlights the degree of discretion that exists on the law books. According to Jeffrey Jackson, law professor at Washburn University in Topeka, “What people don’t realize is district attorneys and prosecutors have a lot of discretion about what cases they will prosecute. . . This is the most blatant way to make the argument that if don’t have the budget, they have to pick and choose more.”  Are your communities and values as protected by law as you think? Think Topeka, and think again.–Kathi Jaworski