Topeka, Kan., Repeals Domestic Violence Law
ROBERT SIEGEL, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
GUY RAZ, host: And I'm Guy Raz.
The economic squeeze can be felt everywhere these days. Here's an extreme example. In Kansas, budgets are so tight that local governments are jostling over who will pay to take spouse abusers to court. The Topeka City Council voted overwhelmingly this week to repeal the city law against domestic battery. The city said it won't prosecute someone who hits his or her spouse. That was a response to a move last month by Shawnee County, which includes Topeka.
The county district attorney had refused to prosecute anymore domestic abuse cases within city limits. He said there's not enough money to do it. But the city said it doesn't have the cash either, and the counsel decided to force the D.A.'s hand.
So, we got in touch with Dan Stanley, city manager for Topeka, Kansas.
DAN STANLEY: Pleasure to be here.
RAZ: Just to clarify, is it now legal to physically abuse your spouse in the city of Topeka?
STANLEY: Absolutely not. That's one of the misconceptions in stories being written and commented about around the country. State law forbids - a state law against domestic battery, domestic violence. These cases have always been arrested and prosecuted under state law. What the city of Topeka did last night was to remove a companion ordinance that mirrored state law.
RAZ: So, under state law it's still illegal. But you have to concede that the message you're sending is that, in fact, spousal abuse is not illegal in Topeka.
STANLEY: No, not at all. I mean, you could take that message if you chose but that's just spin. If you look really into the issue, by removing the city ordinance, we removed a legal ambiguity, which the county was using to push their budget issue over onto the city.
RAZ: But this still seems to be a pretty dangerous game of budgetary chicken. I've read that 18 suspects have been released from domestic abuse charges since this started.
STANLEY: Nobody's been released from their charges. Under state statute here in Kansas, if there's probable cause for domestic violence, then it is a must-arrest situation and the individuals must serve 48 hours in jail. Those people have been arrested. They have done their jail time. It is judges who have released them. It's a cooling off period and the perpetrators are released. The question is will they be prosecuted. And that's what the city wants to see done by the district attorney.
RAZ: Now, the county says it doesn't have enough money to prosecute this. The city says it doesn't have enough money to prosecute these crimes. Can you explain why this costs so much money to enforce?
STANLEY: The costs in order to prosecute these cases correctly, properly, providing the best services to the victims and the families requires family services, requires victim support, it requires court services, none of which our municipal court has and nor were we able to add funding for those, given the fact that we had no idea this was coming. I mean, this was dropped on us September 8th, effective immediately.
Now, what - in addition, the municipality and, in this case, the city of Topeka has to pay the county jail time. So, if you add up the jail time, you add up the court services, the additional prosecutors, the family services, you're looking at about an additional million dollars dropped on us after we'd put our budget to bed. Now, you can under-spend your budget in Kansas but you can't overspend it.
RAZ: But as it stands, if I'm a woman and, say, this afternoon my husband comes home from work, hits me, threatens to kill me, I call 911. There is nobody who is going to prosecute that case as it stands right now.
STANLEY: I would submit to you that the district attorney is obligated and has been all along obligated to prosecute these cases.
RAZ: That's Dan Stanley. He is the city manager for Topeka, Kansas, speaking about the city council's decision to repeal its domestic violence law. Dan Stanley, thank you.
STANLEY: Thank you.
RAZ: We're joined now by Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor. District attorney, we just heard from Dan Stanley, the city manager, saying they are not going to prosecute these cases. The ball is in your court. What are you going to do?
CHAD TAYLOR: Well, statutorily, since we now have sole jurisdiction of those, we will begin reviewing and taking those cases today.
RAZ: So, essentially, you will do what the city is asking you to do.
TAYLOR: Well, it's not what the city is asking us to do; it's what we are statutorily required to do. We're now the sole court of jurisdiction for all misdemeanor domestic batteries that occur inside of the city limits of Topeka.
RAZ: So, how do you do it with the budget constraints that you're working under?
TAYLOR: Well, we have to prioritize what it is that we're prosecuting. We've seen a substantial uptick in the number of codefendant homicide cases that we've had to file, sexual abuse cases, rape cases, things of that nature that are extremely resource intensive to litigate. And then at the end, what we're going to have to do is to be in a position of triaging these cases.
RAZ: But you do not expect to receive any increase in your budget.
TAYLOR: I am hopeful and optimistic that the outcry from the citizens here in Shawnee County is going to be loud enough that the legislative bodies in this community are going to step up and appropriately fund my office and the sheriff's office and the issues of public safety that we've got.
RAZ: District attorney, are there any other crimes that are also expensive to prosecute that you may not be able to prosecute now because of budget constraints?
TAYLOR: You know, the issue of this office and the way that I've managed it for the last three years has been that there were a lot of cases that needed to be tried to make sure that justice was done. And if we are in a position to where our resources are extremely stretched and limited and we're triaging those, the sad reality of it is is that is a possibility.
This is a trend right now that's going on nationwide. If you look at what's going on on the West Coast, if you look at what's going on with the district attorney down in Miami, it literally is everybody is trying to find ways to where they can maximize their level of prosecution and public safety with the budgets that they have. I personally think it's a dangerous precedent that we're setting.
RAZ: I imagine you're probably even using interns and things like that.
TAYLOR: Correct, we do.
TAYLOR: We do. We have been running on a very, very lean budget now for three years. We had to take some layoffs last year because of cost of living or merit step increase that was cut from our budget to the tune of about 3 percent that we don't pay anyway, being a state office housed in a county building. So, you know, we started - we started, you know, limiting and eliminating positions last year. And this year is going to put us in the breach for about 17 percent of our staff to be let go right before Christmas.
RAZ: Chad Taylor, thank you.
TAYLOR: Thank you very much.
RAZ: Chad Taylor is the Shawnee County district attorney. We were talking about the hype between the county and the city of Topeka over who will pay to prosecute domestic abuse cases.
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