TOPEKA, Kan. — Over the past month, one by one, people suspected in domestic battery cases here have been set free, with no charges against them.
Prosecutors say they’re overwhelmed with felonies, and faced with budget cuts, can’t afford to pursue the cases.
Busted budgets have forced tough decisions by governments and law enforcement officials nationwide, but a Kansas prosecutor’s move to stop investigating domestic abuse and other misdemeanor cases has angered victims’ advocates who say austerity has gone too far.
The advocates are also outraged by the response from the capital city of Topeka, where the council and mayor were scheduled Tuesday night to consider repealing an ordinance against domestic violence — a move designed to make sure the city can’t be stuck with the bill for prosecuting such cases. But city and county officials also were hoping to strike a deal to end the budget dispute.
“It’s playing a game of chicken with people’s lives,” said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I can guarantee that people who are abusing are using this as a way to say, ‘See, I told you that nobody cares.”’
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor says he knew his decision would upset people but contends his hand was forced by the 10 percent cut in his budget for 2012, which he says will force him to lay off staff. He said he considered employee furloughs and “every angle” before making his announcement in early September.
“We never wanted this to happen,” he said. “I never thought we’d be at this point.”
Topeka has had at least 35 reported incidents of domestic battery or assault since early September. Those cases are not being pursued, and as of last Friday, 18 people jailed have been released without facing charges, Topeka police say. Prosecutors and police have refused to discuss details of the cases out of concern for victims’ privacy, making it difficult to assess in what situations suspects aren’t being prosecuted.
Taylor’s decision has prompted furious reactions nationally, and county commissioners say they’ve received hundreds of emails in the past few days from people upset by Taylor’s move and the city’s response. Outside the Shawnee County Courthouse on Tuesday, about two dozen people carried signs protesting the moves.
It also doesn’t help that the possible repeal comes during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“It can’t continue like this. They have to be prosecuted,” said County Commissioner Ted Ensley, a Democrat. “Supposing they’re charged and they’re not prosecuted and it ends up they go back and cause a death of a woman or a child.”
In its memo that the planned budget cut would force it to drop its prosecution of misdemeanors occurring within Topeka’s city limits, Taylor’s office said, “Of greatest concern are domestic violence cases.”
Topeka, with its existing ordinance against domestic violence, could take over prosecuting cases and file them in its municipal court. But city officials say Topeka can’t handle the $74-a-day cost per inmate of renting space from the county to jail several hundred suspected abusers or hiring additional staff to handle prosecutions.
The city already handles misdemeanor cases of simple assault and battery, and incidents of assault or battery against its police officers. Domestic assault or battery involves a person in the same household, and victims often need additional services or shelter.
For years, the city and county agreed that the district attorney’s office would handle domestic violence prosecutions in the better-funded state courts. City officials also note that the county has more services for victims and runs the jail. The use of a weapon in an assault or battery makes a crime a felony, and would be handled in state court.
As in other places across the nation, state and local governments in Kansas are struggling to balance their budgets and find new revenue. Earlier this year, Republican Gov. Sam Brownback won big cuts in general aid to public schools and eliminated state funding for arts programs while forestalling any effort to raise revenue through taxes.
A recent National League of Cities report said that cities’ property tax revenues, a key funding source, are expected to drop nearly 4 percent in 2011. Cities including Cleveland and Sacramento, Calif., have laid off police officers this year, and last year, when Tulsa, Okla., temporarily cut its police force by 15 percent, officers stopped responding to non-injury accidents and some pro perty crimes. In many Midwestern states, sheriffs have stopped busting meth labs after federal money aimed at cleaning up the crime scenes ran out.
“No one wants to make these cuts in essential services, but that’s where we’re at,” said Gregory Minchak, a spokesman for the League of Cities.
The current budget for the Shawnee County district attorney’s office is just under $3.5 million, and would drop to a little more than $3.1 million in 2012 under the spending plan county commissioners adopted in August. Taylor said the cuts imposed by the commission would force him to lay off 11 of his 63 staff members.
County commissioners said Taylor decided independently not to prosecute misdemeanor cases, and that all county departments are taking cuts.
Advocates for abuse victims are irritated that officials can’t resolve the dispute. Smith said advocates see plenty of examples of dwindling resources for courts, services and law enforcement. But publicly backing away from prosecutions or repealing an ordinance to avoid potential costs?
“This is the only place I know that it’s gotten traction,” Smith said.