Suspected domestic abusers go free as Topeka city, county officials bicker over funds

A bitter argument over money in Topeka, Kan., means that city and county authorities have neglected to prosecute or charge people suspected of domestic battery since Sept. 8.

In other words, the local justice system has spent a month effectively sending the message that misdemeanor domestic assault will go unpunished--at least for now.

The dispute started last month, when Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor announced that a 10 percent budget cut to his office in 2012 meant he would no longer be prosecuting any of the city's misdemeanors, effective immediately. Topeka city council members say they can't afford the estimated $800,000 yearly cost of prosecuting those misdemeanors and jailing offenders--and that they want the county to continue carrying out misdemeanor prosecutions as it has for the past 25 years. The county continues to insist that the jurisdiction for these prosecutions should shift to city prosecutors, but the Topeka City Council says that none of the city's five attorneys has any recent experience prosecuting domestic violence cases.

Next week, the council will vote on a measure that will strip domestic battery from a list of crimes that are illegal in the city. The vote is a tactical bid to force the county to take those cases on again.

City Council member Larry Wolgast told The Lookout he's opposed to that tactic, since there's no guarantee that the county will actually prosecute domestic battery cases just because the city decriminalizes the offense. But Wolgast also says the city cannot find the money to prosecute the cases themselves. "If we could just solve this by taking them over, that would be great to do. But the people aren't there," he said. He added that the most severe cases of domestic battery would be written up as felonies, which are still prosecuted by the county.

Karen Hiller, another City Council member, tells The Lookout that the county already has the resources needed to prosecute these kind of cases, while the city--which doesn't even have its own jail--would have to build from the ground up. Taylor would need an extra $200,000 to continue prosecuting them, while the city would have to spend nearly $1 million.

"How could we possibly do this on 10 minutes notice?" she said.

A domestic abuse survivor and activist, Claudine Dombrowski, told Fox4 that the city is sending the message that it's OK to beat your wife or husband.

"They need to invest in headstones, because these women are going to end up in cemeteries," Dombrowski told the station. She said she was hit with a crowbar in a domestic violence incident classified as a misdemeanor 16 years ago.

Wolgast says he's not sure when the jurisdictional dispute will end. When asked to address potential victims of domestic abuse whose perpetrators are not being prosecuted, he said: "We're working to solve the situation. I don't know what more I can say at this point."

According to James Anderson at the Topeka Police Department, city authorities have arrested 20 people on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic battery since Sept. 8. Anderson said he doesn't know how many were charged, but Shawnee County court data suggests that all of the suspected offenders were released and not charged. One man was arrested twice over the month, both times on suspected domestic battery, and released both times. Their cases will be brought up for prosecution again once the city and county resolve their dispute, according to Hiller.

In Kansas, domestic battery is defined as "intentionally or recklessly causing bodily harm by a family or household member against a family or household member," or intentionally physically contacting a family member in a "rude, insulting or angry manner." The third time someone is convicted of domestic battery within five years, the offense becomes a felony.

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