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For Domestic Violence Victims, There's No Place Like Topeka

Sandra Park,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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October 14, 2011

The systematic failures of the U.S. to respond to domestic violence have come under international scrutiny in recent months, but the dire situation for victims in Topeka, Kansas — during Domestic Violence Awareness Month no less — puts a spotlight on just how far some governments will go in refusing to guarantee the most basic of human rights: to live free from violence.

The crisis began when the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office, faced with 10 percent budget cuts, announced it would no longer prosecute misdemeanors in the capital city of Topeka, instead leaving the cases to city prosecutors. According to the New York Times, almost half of the 423 misdemeanors prosecuted by the County last year were domestic battery cases, with other assaults, drug offenses and shoplifting making up the rest.

City prosecutors did not want to take on the new case load, so the City Council opted to rid itself of the problem. By a vote of 7-3, it repealed the City’s ordinance criminalizing domestic violence. This maneuver, it hoped, would force the County to step back in. Theoretically, the City’s plan worked — the County DA’s office has now grudgingly agreed to prosecute domestic violence cases under state law.

But the repeal also told victims in Topeka that neither their County nor City wanted to treat the violence they experienced as they would other serious crimes. While both County and City spokespeople are quick to state their support for prosecuting domestic assault cases, in the last six weeks, 18 people have been arrested and released without charges because no agency would move forward with prosecuting the cases. That means there are 18 victims who reached out for help, only to find their government would not enforce the law.

According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, women account for 85 percent of the victims of intimate partner violence. As the Times reports, non-domestic assaults made up a significant portion of the other 50 percent of Shawnee County’s 2010 misdemeanors. By repealing only its domestic violence law, the Topeka City Council essentially indicated that it is willing to prosecute assaults — just not those that historically have been viewed as “private” problems, primarily perpetrated against women.

Budget cuts during a recession are not a surprise. Rather than looking to smarter, effective ways to save money and improve our justice system, the County and City sought to abandon their duty to protect communities from domestic violence. Today, those who have experienced abuse are left with a city that has officially decriminalized domestic violence, and a county district attorney’s office without the resources to prosecute. We urge the City and County to work to find a solution that does not further re-victimize those who need protection.

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