Topeka, Kansas Repeals Domestic Violence Law - A Move Away from Family Restoration

Topeka, Kansas has determined it will no longer prosecute domestic violence assault cases, and has effectively repealed its domestic violence law. Many jurisdictions, in fact, have simply decided in-house to no longer prosecute domestic assaults cases, but Topeka has gone even one step further by repealing their city ordinance. Read the full article at http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2011/10/12/topeka_kansas_repeals_domestic_violence_law_amid_budget_cuts.html.

Misdemeanor domestic violence cases are disliked intensely by most prosecutors. The reasons for this are understandable from their perspective -- often it is a "he said, she said" situation concerning exactly what happened during the incident. It's not unusual for the victim to decide not to cooperate in the prosecution, and, even when the victim does cooperate it is difficult to get a conviction. For a prosecutor with a limited budget, an overwhelming workload, and a limited number of hours in the day during which cases can be resolved, it is much easier to either grant a diversion to the perpetrator or to decide not to prosecute at all.

The unfortunate result of this is victims who believe that even if the violence against them is reported, they will not be taken seriously, or if they are taken seriously the abuser will receive very little in the way of repercussions. Sadly, both of these assumptions are correct.

The tensions that this creates in a community became all too real a few weeks ago in Kansas when the City of Topeka repealed its ordinance against domestic violence thereby decriminalizing the act. This action on the part of the city was precipitated by the district attorney adopting a policy not to prosecute misdemeanor cases committed within the city limits, placing this responsibility on the city instead, due to a ten percent budget cut in the state agency.

In its desperation to find ways to not have to take on this responsibility, and knowing that the state is statutorily obligated to prosecute domestic violence cases if the city does not, Topeka decided to, in the words of city councilman Chad Manspeaker, "play hardball" with the state." This strategy has apparently worked. Two weeks ago the district attorney's office announced, under tremendous pressure from the media and domestic violence organizations all over the nation, that it would once again begin to prosecute these cases. In truth, they had to: misdemeanor domestic violence is no longer against the law in Topeka and so the city has no authority to prosecute it as a crime, but it is a crime in the state of Kansas - this leaves little choice in who now bears the responsibility.

In a statement recently released by the District Attorney's office we are told that office, "now retains sole authority to prosecute domestic battery misdemeanors and will take on this responsibility so as to better protect and serve our community. We will do so with less staff, less resources, and severe constraints on our ability to effectively seek justice." The take away message: we don't want to do it but have no other choice even though it is a great inconvenience for us to do so. The City of Topeka wins.

The big loser, however, is not the district attorney - rather, it is the victims of abuse who are left feeling even more confused and abandoned by a system that, even at its best, has never worked well for them. They are once again left to feel as though the crimes being committed against them are not being taken seriously.
Domestic violence is a crime in which the perpetrators receive their cues from society at large and are strongly influenced by how much they think will be tolerated. The allegedly "uncontrollable anger" of an abuser becomes surprisingly well controlled when law enforcement officers arrive on a scene. Knowledge that the crime is either not going to be prosecuted at all or that it will only be prosecuted reluctantly will be viewed by them as implied permission.

Where does this leave the victims? Exactly where they are accustomed to being: alone, with little hope, and trying the best they can to navigate a judicial system that does not want them there.

[Thanks to Kathleen Hodge, Regent Law 3L, for this special guest post.]


  1. Repealing local law on domestic violence in order to make a statement to the state definitely has a huge impact on victims of such abuse, but I also can't help but wonder how these statements are also affecting law enforcement officials and others who are charged with keeping the peace. Regardless of how and where domestic violence cases are heard, people are going to keep calling and reaching out for help. How are police supposed to respond to multiple and repeat offenders, especially when the chances of prosecution are slim or at best, delayed? Every organization is facing budget cuts, but keeping families safe should be a priority. I know this is much easier said than done. However, states and cities with a united plan for curbing domestic violence may find it cuts costs in the long run, encouraging both safety and self-sufficiency of the family.

  2. These women are already scared no one will help or care and Topeka has just sent out a clear message that little help is offered. It is quite shocking that in a vote in favor of repealing the domestic abuse law of 7-3, only one woman and two men voted against the repeal, with 2 woman and five men voting for the repeal.

    It is sad and terrifying that the city to repeal this law is the capital city of Kansas. What an example Topeka is.

  3. I think this story really says alot more about the difficult choices local jurisdictions are faced with in the face of economic shortfalls than it does about any widespread change in attitudes toward domestic violence. As the report detailed, many prosecutors struggle to keep up with ever-increasing case loads. In a pinch, this can only mean adhering to a system whereby the cases with weaker evidence are scrapped. It's the unfortunate nature of the beast.

    I recently came across two similar news pieces discussing how budget cuts affect the criminal justice system. In one, the Detroit Police department announced that due to funding restrictions, officers would no longer be responding to cars involving auto-theft and shoplifting because there were simply too many other crimes being committed that demanded the officers' attention. (more of an argument for personal gun ownership than government funding increase if you ask me)

    The second story was about California's recent release of thousands of violent and non-violent prisoners (by court order) due to substantial overcrowding within the state department of corrections.

    Both of these stories are analagous to the posted story because they illustrate negative impacts on public welfare as a result of budget cuts - the ultimate effects of which have yet to be seen.

    Whether or not domestic violence in Topeka will drastically increase is uncertain if not unlikely - but in order to ensure the protection of families in cases where governmental systems break down, the legal community must vigorously explore alternative options to incarceration and attempt to develop affordable yet affective treatment programs while fostering support networks for victims of family violence.

  4. I could not agree more with the comments that have already been posted. During family law class we have spoken numerous times about the amazing statistics that exist concerning children that have been abused or seen one of their parents abused and the debilitating effects it has on their adulthood. What is the city of Topeka telling its communities with this measure? That our economy is so bad that even the personal safety of its citizens is no longer a priority? This is indeed a sad state of affairs and will most likely result in more cases of spouses having to protect themselves and their children from abusers. More and more cases of battered women will flood the court system. Those types of cases should not exist. There has to be alternative means for victims of abuse to seek out help and get themselves out of these bad situations. Sadly, the city of Topeka seems to be telling its citizens that domestic abuse is not the government's problem anymore. If that is the case, then why have the government in the first place?

  5. Repealing domestic violence law is a scary proposition. It concerns me for two reasons. First, as some other bloggers have already discussed, victims of abuse will have little legal recourse for protection and stopping the cycle of abuse. Second, victims of abuse may take matters into their own hands if they believe courts will not take action. One can imagine a situation in which one spouse abuses the other, and the victim begins to think through solutions. If talking to the abuser does not make a difference, the victim may consider more drastic measures. Believing that the abuser will not be prosecuted could lead the victim to end the abuse by taking matters into his or her own hands. In the worst case scenario, the victim may consider attacking, injuring, or killing the abuser because there appears to be no other legal solution. Such a scenario certainly is not the intent of any governing body that chooses not to prosecute domestic abuse cases. However, such localities may see a rise in violent retaliation by the victims of abuse. Hopefully, that will not be the case.

  6. This story is wicked sad. I was a spokesperson for an organization aimed at combating domestic abuse, and it seemed to be fairly consistent in the experiences of the victims I spoke with that they felt that there was nothing they could do to stop the abuse. Many women stayed with an abusive spouse because they did't believe they had the power, emotional or legal, to successfully leave and be secure. Repealing a domestic violence law makes those fears a definite reality if the law isn't even on the victim's side anymore. Awful.