Last night, the Topeka, Kansas city council took an extraordinary step to manage budget cuts — decriminalizing domestic violence. The move was spurred by a lack of prosecutorial budgets at all levels of the city and county court system, a problem which came to its tipping point last night.
In Topeka, domestic violence is most often a misdemeanor. Lower level crimes like these tend to make up much of the bulk of the court system. City leaders claimed that too often, the Shawnee County district attorney would hand these misdemeanor cases off to the city to process and pay for without warning. According to the DA, budget cuts forced him to focus only on felony offenses forcing him to push misdemeanor crimes off to the city. The city in turn claims that volume of these misdemeanors was outside of its ability and budget to continue to manage effectively.
As the situation grew to a stalemate, the city council took up the questions of how to delegate responsibility and cost. Through a majority vote of 7-3 the city council opted to force the DA to prosecute these cases by decriminalizing domestic violence in Topeka.
Domestic violence still remains a crime under state law which is why the move will now force the DA to prosecute these smaller cases despite budget claims. At the meeting, advocates of victims of domestic violence were quick to point out that already several individuals arrested on domestic violence calls had been released without charges because no new cases are being accepted.
The DA’s office has taken a 10% budget cut this cycle and is already implementing layoffs which are only expected to increase the pain in an already strained legal system. Those cuts will not go into effect until next year, but in advance of them the DA opted to stop prosecuting certain crimes such as misdemeanor domestic violence.
Prosecutorial prioritization is nothing new, especially in times of budget crises or when legal systems are faced with an uptick in overall volume. However, the discussion of these priorities in public and now at a national level has some observers worried that they will now feel free to commit crimes like domestic violence without fear of consequences.