THE LAW IS THE LAW.
Except when it isn’t.
If you haven’t heard about the city of Topeka Kansas’ decision to wipe the domestic violence law off the books and set 18 people free from jail who were alleged domestic violence criminals, let’s catch you up.
Topeka (“the city”) has budget woes, not unlike many other cities across the country. Our own Harrisburg filed for bankruptcy. (which is a story for another post as it is going to be a fascinating showdown between the mayor and city council to see if council had the right to file or if the mayor herself needed to do so- which she wouldn’t as she is opposed to this option. Like I said, this is an entire post in itself.)
So, the city of Topeka doesn’t have enough money, and the city council decides it would be prudent to save money by allowing those with misdemeanors (AKA alleged domestic abusers to go free.) They literally repealed the domestic battery law.
You mean of all the ways to save money, THIS was the thing you chose? How could this possibly have seemed right to any of you?
Oh, but there’s an integral piece to the story missing. See, the city played a game. They manipulated the county into taking over the prosecution of these ‘misdemeanor’ crimes by forcing the hand of the DA’s office for Shawnee County. City says, hmmm. We can’t cover the costs of keeping the public safe. If we take this law off our books, then it falls to the county to do so as per the Kansas state law. Problem solved.
The day after the repeal (10/12/11) , Chad Taylor, Shawnee County KA District Attorney announced that his office would resume filing and prosecuting misdeameanors let go by the city of Topeka. His office’s budget was reduced by $350,000 but has increased the number of criminal cases they file. Previously, his office announced they would no longer prosecute misdemeanors or felonies committed inside city limits as Topeka had their law on the books.
To the Topeka-Capitol Journal, on the issue of resuming the responsibility of prosecuting domestic battery misdemeanors, Taylor made this statement, “We will do so with less staff, less resources, and severe constraints on our ability to effectively seek justice. But we will do so willingly to preserve the public safety of all the citizens of Shawnee County.”
This is a battle that many large cities have with the county they are part of. There tends to be an overlap of duties and responsibilities. Once budgets become an issue, much finger pointing is done at the expense of those that reside there. Pittsburgh is no exception, by the way. There are several issues that come up between the city and county, including police protection and criminal prosecution jurisdiction.
The big picture with the City of Topeka vs. Shawnee county is that this battle needed to be done without putting victims in harms way. The city council made a huge error by playing politics with those facing potential backlash of abuse when those 18 people were released. And by adding to the vast number of cases the county is dealing with already, it means an extended time waiting for hearings and justice to be served.
The council responded on NPR October 12th and stated something to the effect of they aren’t allowed to spend more than their budget and they have maxed out their budget for the year. It would be interesting to know what other redundant laws are on the books in Topeka. What other duplicate services are the city and county providing? Couldn’t Topeka have found safer options for the public that they could have chosen to contract out to the county in order to reduce their budget? What services could be combined or shared that would benefit the people who live there and reduce or minimize costs to both sides?
The choice Topeka’s council made in fixing their budget problems made a game of protecting its citizens. The dramatic ploy in repealing the law was done without thought to the tax base for whom they make decisions. The fight over who was responsible for paying the costs of filing complaints and prosecuting under the law needed done without putting victims in the middle. It is a serious mockery of the justice system to repeal law based on a financial tactic such as this.
While the distress of removing a law against domestic battery victims is monumental, there is an even greater issue that comes out of this story.
It is not just Topeka that faces financial burdens. Faced with a dire economy and inability to meet outstanding debts while operating on a budget that doesn’t match the projected costs is becoming commonplace. It is a lesson learned from Topeka and one that many cities and those that live there need to investigate before faced with similar decisions. From Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to Vallejo, California cities are defaulting or have defaulted on their credit obligations. Roger Lowenstein(originally posted here as Robert as attributed in NYT 10/14/11 correction thanks to Mr. Lowenstein) published an article in March of this year with the New York Times titled Broke Town, USA. In it, he tells readers, “Unlike a corporation, whose revenue can disappear, cities do not go away — or at least, most of them don’t. Detroit is in trouble because of its shrinking population, as are any number of towns in the former steel region of Western Pennsylvania. Many former industrial cities are burdened with governments that are out of proportion to their shrunken tax bases. Local budgets were stretched even before the recession; now, diminished tax receipts have threatened their ability to balance budgets. Bondholders in those municipalities have reason to sweat.”
The number of cities mentioned in this article are significant. The problems we face are staggering. It isn’t enough to just live in your city and hope for the best. It is time to get involved and understand what your city is facing under the stressful economic conditions plaguing the US right now. Being proactive about prioritizing items in the budget that need to stay, finding way to reduce costs without sacrificing public safety by sharing or consolidating services between agencies or between municipalities, and defining who carries the burden of financial responsibility without waiting until a financial crisis causes a knee-jerk response like the one in Topeka are key areas to think about.
There are things you can do to inform yourself and others about your areas decisions.
- Go to a meeting or read the minutes online. Most cities make their council and other political minutes available that way.
- Speak to your local officials. Get to know them. Understand the choices they face.
- When you find an issue of importance, don’t just share it around the water cooler. Share the information through social media.
- Read and/or participate in discussions on Facebook and Twitter from your mayor, council members and representatives pages or feeds.
- When you find an injustice or concern like what happened in Topeka, bring others together in a call to action. We used the Just Give Me 10 page on Facebook to call for social media superheroes (#smhero on Twitter) to help spread the word and take action.
- Be aware of upcoming votes and issues in your community. Use logical and respectful communication to make your opinion known.
Simply Put- Learn from Topeka and prevent this from happening in your city.