Broken wrists. Blows to the head by a crowbar. Chipped teeth. Twenty-four stitches to close a wound. These are some of the injuries Claudine Dombrowski suffered at the hands of her boyfriend. The violence did not stop when she broke up with him. Alarmingly, his charges of domestic violence were reduced to disorderly conduct on a number of occasions. Imagine how she and other simularly situated Topeka, Kansas residents felt when earlier this month the city’s officials seriously considered decriminalizing domestic violence. The move to repeal the law regarding domestic violence was in response to the Shawnee County government placing domestic violence enforcement on the city governments’ tab. Decriminalizing domestic violence was a means to save money.
I am unsure what is more shocking: the fact that legalizing domestic violence was seriously considered as a means to save money, or that on October 12th, in a 7 to 3 vote, the City Council of Topeka, Kansas repealed the local law making domestic abuse a crime.
In September, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s office faced a ten percent budget cut. In response, the county decided to stop prosecuting misdemeanors, like domestic violence. Of the 423 misdemeanor cases that were prosecuted in Topeka last year, almost half were domestic battery cases. That number should be greater because most cases of domestic violence are not reported to the police By September 14, 2011, nearly six days after the D.A. announced it had no intention of prosecuting misdemeanors, thirty domestic violence misdemeanor cases were turned back to the city police because the D.A. would not prosecute.
One news outlet suggests that this decision was the city’s attempt to force the county to prosecute misdemeanor cases. What county would let domestic violence go unpunished? Right now, Shawanee County is.
While Shawanee County and Topeka play chicken with one another and argue over who will prosecute domestic violence offenders (and front the bill), some alleged misdemeanor domestic violence offenders are being released. The release of these individuals sends a number of dangerous and powerful messages. First, the general public, the offenders and, most importantly, the victims are effectively told that the government is apathetic towards domestic violence and the people who experience it. Second, releasing people who have been accused of committing acts of domestic violence conveys a lack of respect and appreciation by the D.A. and the city regarding the amount of courage required to report and the complex emotional turmoil associated with reporting acts of domestic violence. Moreover, the absence of aggressive prosecution encourages violence because there are no repercussions for unacceptable conduct. Where there are no negative consequences for specific behaviors, then there is nothing to deter said behavior.
It is also important to keep in mind that the scope of domestic violence is greater than simply violent conduct by men towards women. By further reducing what little government attention and assistance is already provided to vitcims of domestic violence, this poorly thought out plan creates an additional hurdle in engaging in a serious discussion that addresses the complexities and breadth of violence in our homes.
Lastly, and what disturbs me most, is that this entire set up is encouraging victims, who are mostly women, not to report these crimes. As previously indicated, many victims already do not report crimes of domestic violence. This game of chicken is only damaging an already vulnerable population - which happens to be mostly female.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It is safe to say that Shawanee County and Topeka has done a fine job of putting Domestic Violence at the forefront of everyone’s mind, even if it is in the most frightening way.