Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Wrong Answer: A Game of Chicken with Women's Lives in the Balance

Last week, I read with shock and dismay a story coming out of Kansas. In the midst of economic downturn and the age of austerity, state and municipal governments have had to cut back budgets in order to remain in the black. Of course, deep cuts make sense given the situation these local governments find themselves in. The public should understand this. A hiring freeze in government jobs? Ok. Cut city funded firework shows during the Fourth of July? Makes sense. Mandated furlough days? Sure it isn’t good, but I understand. Legalize domestic violence? Yeah, ok… wait, what?!?!?!?!

Yes, in Topeka, Kansas, city officials were considering a controversial vote to decriminalize domestic violence in the city after the Shawnee County government dropped domestic violence enforcement on the cities’ laps. How could this happen? Last month, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office’s annual budget was cut by 10%. As a result, the DA announced that the office would no longer prosecute misdemeanor cases, which includes domestic violence crimes. As a result, the county’s cities found themselves in charge of prosecuting these cases. But cities like Topeka are lacking their own resources and say they cannot handle the increased costs to handle prosecutions.

So what do rational adults do when their respective offices are constricted by budget cuts? They pick a hot-button issue with great potential for grossly tragic consequences to human life to wield as political swords, of course. Why would we try to protect those victims whose lives have been turned upside down by domestic violence, especially during the month of October, which has been the nation’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month since 1987? Why should we enforce laws against domestic violence, even while we all agree that domestic violence is a serious crime that should be charged? The real question, the issue we should all be focused on, is who is going to prosecute these crimes and who will pay for it?

In reality, this is simply a political game of chicken. And both sides are waiting to see who blinks first. By removing domestic violence from Topeka’s criminal code, the city counsel hopes to force the District Attorney to prosecute the cases because they remain a crime under state law. But this political posturing is putting victims of domestic violence at risk. As of yesterday, when the Topeka City Counsel voted to approve the measure, at least 35 incidents of domestic violence had been reported and not been pursued by the District Attorney or the city. And 18 people jailed have been released without facing charges.

Domestic violence is a crime that can reach deep into all facets of life. Young children, older adults, men, women – nobody is entirely immune. But the simple fact is that the vast majority of domestic violence victims are women. Domestic violence is already one of the most chronically underreported crimes in this nation. Decriminalizing this crime further marginalizes victims and pushes women to the fringe. Failing to prosecute these cases will have dire consequences. In an effort to regain or reassert their dominance over their victims, abusers typically become increasingly violent. And abusers can manipulate the situation, telling their victims that nobody cares about them.

I understand that political entities are guarding their sacred budgets and protecting them from being further diminished. I appreciate why the District Attorney is pressuring the county to reinstate his 2011 budget for 2012. And I get why the City cannot afford to take on the added expense of the cases. But this political gamesmanship is the wrong answer. There must be better options (i.e., hiring freezes, denying pay raises, splitting costs, or more) to address the financial troubles our local governments are facing.


tomindavis said...

Wow, BrownEyedGirl, that is a truly surprising turn of events. Then again, considering how out in nore rural areas, women's righta to custody and other family matters, often get short shrift in the eyes of the law, it is perhaps not so stunning.

What I find remarkable are the assumptions underlying this decision -- even if one admits (as one should) that even criminal law departments and courts need to feel some cuts when states and counties struggle with financial shortfalls. Yet so often these decisions rest on the notion that the more SERIOUS crimes are the ones that need the resources. States like Kansas have the death penalty, which demand wasteful spending. Yet violence in the home (mostly against women) is disregarded as less pressing? is it because they are JUST misdemeanors? It is hard to square such undeveloped reasoning with the severe effects of violence in the home.

Then there's that cynical response by lawmakers that the local DA was "using women as a pawn" in order to get more money for his department. Without knowing that DA, I think it is fair to say he just might want more money for his department in order to be able to prosecute wrongful crimes against women!

At any rate, I sure hope this does not set a precedent of prosecutorial hot potato, where districts feeling the financial pinch race to the bottom in regards to domestic violence matters.

Caitlin said...

This story was definitely a sad example of political posturing among local entities who are stick with tight budgets and too few resources to go around.

In light of our classes today, however, I am also concerned with the fact that in many rural places, women cannot trust the local authorities to adequately prosecute DV cases. Part of it is due to the lack of anonymity that Prof. Pruitt mentions in her articles, coupled with the social isolation and relative "lawlessness" felt by many rural women.

So, why aren't we just as angry about this? Even if the laws are in place and the funding is presumably there, how can we address the fact that DV is so underreported in rural places? What can be done?

Brown Eyed Girl said...

Unfortunately, Caitlin, you are absolutely correct. Domestic violence crimes are among the least reported crimes in the country- whether they occur in a rural or urban environment.

Anonymity, or lack thereof, can play a large role in either of these settings. In a rural county, a victim (male or female) may know the sheriff, judge, or prosecutor. Or their abuser may have a close relationship with someone in the system. In either case, it can be nerve wracking to come forward with such personal and detailed allegations without knowing what the outcome may be. Or, in an urban environment, victims may often feel that they are "just a number" in a prosecutor's file. Perhaps the best we can do is to continue to support local agencies that provide counseling or shelters for battered women and other victims of domestic abuse. Where there is a lack of follow through on the part of the government, education and support may be the only way to help empower these individuals and aid them in their battle to reestablish control of their lives.

On a related note, it looks like the City of Topeka and Shawnee County figured out that using domestic violence as a political pawn was dangerous. Less than twenty-four hours after the city repealed their domestic violence law, the District Attorney announced that misdemeanor domestic violence charges would be enforced again, using certified law students and supervising attorneys. [1]