Topeka DA Will Prosecute Domestic Violence After All

VIDEO: City cites bankruptcy as reason for repealing law against domestic
WATCH Topeka, Kan., Decriminalizes Spousal Abuse

Domestic violence crimes will once again be prosecuted in Topeka, Kan., after the district attorney reversed his earlier stance and said today he would once again begin prosecutions.

District attorney Chad Taylor released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying that despite budget cuts to his department, his office would make do with less in order to continue prosecuting the crimes.

Shawnee County and the county seat, Topeka, had become mired in national controversy for a budget fight over which arm of government should pay for prosecuting the crimes.

Topeka, which has a municipal court that has traditionally handled all misdemeanors except for domestic violence, said it would not be able to absorb the costs of providing the support staff required for victims, criminals and families of domestic violence.

The city council voted Tuesday to de-criminalize domestic violence in order to put the burden on the county to fund the prosecutions.

"The city isn't suggesting that we don't prosecute misdemeanor crimes when there is spousal or child abuse, but we need to have an understanding with the DA and the county that it's their operation," said Topeka Mayor Bill Bunten.

The vote came after Taylor announced last month that he would stop prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence incidents because of a 10 percent cut to his budget. By refusing to prosecute the crimes, Taylor hoped to force the city of Topeka to prosecute them instead. Tuesday's vote proved otherwise.

The DA's office has prosecuted the crimes for more than 10 years, according to Bunten, and Topeka shouldn't be forced to absorb those costs.

The DA would need to continue prosecuting misdemeanor domestic violence offenses for the five towns in the county that do not have municipal courts, and so would need to employ the support staff either way. Additionally, Bunten noted, any convictions could be appealed to the county level, which would make the municipal court redundant.

"We opted out of the state statute last night which says municipalities should prosecute these crimes," said Bunten. "That was done so that it couldn't be thrown into our laps."

Taylor, whose office will operate with $350,000 less in 2012 than it did in 2011, said he relented after learning of Topeka's decision.

"I am deeply saddened by the City of Topeka's unfortunate decision to place resources and political grandstanding before its constituents' safety," Taylor wrote in his statement today. "Public safety is the core responsibility of government and a responsibility I am deeply committed to upholding. Therefore, effective immediately my office will commence the review and filing of misdemeanors decriminalized by the City of Topeka."

The budget fight began when the Shawnee County Commission, made up of three elected officials, cut all county departments' budgets by 10 percent this year, a result of tough economic times, according to Mary M. Thomas, who was appointed to the panel just two weeks ago.

"Everyone is facing this problem across the country, and [all county departments] were first informed in early summer that, because of the loss of income due to the devaluation of real estate, everyone would have to share equally in the pain," she said.

Thomas said that Taylor, the DA, was the only official that chose not to participate in budget discussions, and when his department's budget was cut along with the rest, he decided to stop prosecuting domestic violence crimes in protest.

"What he did was he chose a population of folks that rarely has a voice, often in an economic situation that they cannot take matters into their own hands through civil process, to get the headlines he needed to make the commission give in. Unfortunately it's been a matter of giving in or calling someone's bluff," Thomas said.

The new budget restrictions, she noted, would not go into effect until January. Taylor announced that he would stop the prosecutions in September.

While the city council and the county commissioners figured out who would prosecute the crimes, those charged with domestic violence since September -- 18 people, according to Topeka police -- were released without trial or sentencing. One individual was arrested again for domestic violence against his wife, according to Bunten.

For domestic violence victims and advocates, the government's failure to prosecute crimes while fighting over budget issues is a dangerous precedent.

The Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence and the National Network to End Domestic Violence have been outspoken critics of the fight, calling on the government to prioritize domestic violence.

"It is unconscionable to attempt to balance budgets on the backs of victims of domestic violence, putting them in greater danger of serious injury or death," said Sue Else, president of the NNEDV. "Holding perpetrators of domestic violence accountable is a cornerstone of public health and safety. We urge the local government to fully fund the prosecution of all domestic violence cases today. We cannot afford to wait."