TOPEKA, Kan. – A district attorney in Kansas said Wednesday that his office will review all misdemeanor domestic violence cases forwarded to him by the Topeka police and determine on a case-by-case basis which ones merit pressing charges.
Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor, who had announced last month that he would no longer pursue such cases, said in a statement Wednesday that he now has "sole authority" over them after the city of Topeka voted to repeal a local domestic violence ordinance.
"We will do so with less staff, less resources, and severe constraints on our ability to effectively seek justice," Taylor said. "But we will do so willingly to preserve the public safety of all the citizens of Shawnee County."
That comes a day after the mayor and council of Kansas' capital city repealed Topeka's ordinance against domestic violence, a dramatic turn in their attempt to force the county to back away from its earlier decision. Advocates for victims of domestic violence had decried those moves as ones that would hurt public safety and put people who were already scared at greater risk.
Taylor said in September that his decision to stop prosecuting misdemeanors committed inside Topeka was because of budget cuts. He contends that the county commission forced his hand by reducing the budget by 10 percent for 2012, when his office is swamped by felony cases.
City leaders argue that Topeka can't afford to replicate county services for domestic abuse victims or rent jail space from the county for suspects.
Taylor also announced Wednesday that he was laying off 11 to 12 staff members, effective Dec. 23. That will bring his staff to 51 or 52 people and reflect a loss of $350,000 in county funds and $120,000 in expiring federal grants. The district attorney's budget will be reduced to about $3.1 million.
The city already handles misdemeanor cases of simple assault and battery, and incidents of assault or battery against its police officers. Domestic assault or battery involves a person in the same household, and victims often need additional services or shelter.
Since early September, Topeka has had at least 35 reported incidents of domestic battery or assault, and those cases are not being pursued. As of Friday, 21 people jailed have been released without facing charges, according to Topeka police. Prosecutors and police have refused to discuss details of the cases out of concern for victims' privacy, making it difficult to assess in what situations suspects aren't being prosecuted.
A Topeka police spokeswoman said officers had continued to investigate cases of domestic violence and prepare reports that were being forwarded for prosecution, even after Taylor's announcement last month.
Interim Topeka City Manager Dan Stanley issued a statement Wednesday saying that he was pleased with Taylor's decision and that the city would keep advocating for his office to get more funding.
"All along we have wanted what is best for the victims and their families," Stanley said. "Victims will be spared having to go through multiple trials and will receive the many vital services the county has in place to support them."
Stanley was scheduled to meet with county officials Thursday.
For years, the city and county agreed that the district attorney's office would handle domestic violence prosecutions in the better-funded state courts. City officials also note that the county has more services for victims and runs the jail. The use of a weapon in an assault or battery makes a crime a felony, and would be handled in state court.
The city and county decisions had raised concerns from advocates who see the potential void of prosecutions making situations worse for domestic violence victims, including children.
"It can be dangerous," said Becky Dickinson, director of the Topeka YWCA's Center for Safety and Empowerment. "It can escalate for the victim. If charges aren't filed, they can be released and they can be angry because they were arrested."
Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, called the city council's decision "an unprecedented step backward."
"The message creates a clear and present danger to Topeka citizens. The standoff is unconscionable. It just has to go away." Grover said. "There are communities, in the face of the economic downturn, that are putting more resources into domestic violence issues."
Grover said she was pleased Taylor would be reviewing the cases after hearing "voices from across the city, state, and nation."
"We remain vigilant, however, as he warns the community about the 'consequences' of these recent events," she said.
Brian Martin, founder of the Making Memories Foundation, a national domestic violence organization advocating for children, noted that the dispute occurred during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
"I believe the decision by Topeka's mayor and city council would have been different if they knew the devastating impacts domestic violence has on children," Martin said. "Studies show that without help up to three-quarters of these children will grow up to repeat the cycle of abuse."