Friday, October 7, 2011

Want to (legally) beat your spouse? Move to Topeka!

Well, actually, you could move to most anywhere in Shawnee County, whose district court, due to lack of resources, no longer prosecutes domestic violence cases, and instead mandates that the (equally cash-strapped) municipalities prosecute them. But Topeka, so far as we know, is the only such municipality contemplating politically pushing back by actually decriminalizing domestic violence entirely, as part of a move to kick back all misdemeanor prosecutions to the state.

I'm not entirely sure what to say about this. What I'm not going to engage in is some knee-jerk Midwest-bashing. I lived in the Midwest on two occasions for a total of over 8 years of my adult life -- long enough to know that every part of the country has good people and bad ones, and most are a mix of both, just trying to get by. But still... on first reading, all I could do was make inarticulate noises in the back of my throat. And even on deeper thought, I'm going to be unable to form a coherent essay with a thesis statement (other than this). So here are my bullet points:
  • Budget cuts are bad. Our public resources are strained. But is telling a person who has been brutally beaten by her or his spouse or partner that such conduct is no longer prosecutable where they live really the most sensible way to save money?
  • Perhaps Topeka is trying to use this as a lever: "Budget cuts have forced us to immediately release batterers, who statistics show will most likely repeat their behavior. We don't want to do this. This is putting human lives on the line. So we need more resources, or we need counties and the state to step up. We're sending a political message on behalf of women!" But in the real world, messages don't mean shit when you're living in constant fear in your home, if you're not in a hospital bed or in the ground.
  • And of the many things that counties and states have shoved off on municipalities (just as the federal government offloads its responsibilities onto the states), why is it women* whose bodies are being put on the line?
  • That was a rhetorical question.
  • Poverty and frustration with long-term unemployment increases the incidence of domestic violence (especially male-on-female domestic violence). There are complex cultural reasons for it tied up with American notions of masculinity. But the point is that the same massive long-term recession that is behind this move to decriminalize domestic violence is simultaneously going to cause rates of domestic violence to double or triple. So protections for women are disappearing at a time when they are likely to need them more than ever.
  • The Topeka mayor assures his constituents that anyone who thinks that decriminalizing domestic violence means that said violence will go unpunished is "dead wrong." How, precisely, will punishment be effected if it's no longer a prosecutable offense in the municipal code, and if the D.A. has already taken a pass?
  • Why the actual fuck is domestic battery only a misdemeanor? Here's an idea, Topeka: go ahead and save money by refusing to prosecute misdemeanors (not an ideal solution, granted), but legally bundle that decision with another one to reclassify domestic battery as a felony.**

Enough. The upshot is that the Topeka city council is seriously considering making it no longer a prosecutable offense to beat somebody up… as long as it's somebody who lives under your own roof. This is making me sick.

UPDATED: I've just written a professionally-worded e-mail to the Topeka City Council. Their general contact info, as well as contact info for the mayor and individual council members, can be found here. I encourage people to get involved however you see fit. As a suggestion: bear in mind that the most effective political communication is concise, to-the-point, and avoids ad hominem attacks. (So, yes: I wrote them under my real name and took out the swears...)

*Yes, I know that women are not the only victims of domestic violence, and I know that men are not the only perpetrators. But since 84% of spouse abuse victims were females, and 86% of victims of dating partner abuse at were female, I'm gonna go with the argument that women are the ones being treated as expendable here.

**Joel, who knows about such things, notes that the power to do this does not lie with the municipalities. Fair enough. But I still maintain my original outraged question: Why the actual fuck is domestic battery only a misdemeanor -- in Topeka, or the state, or anywhere, for that matter?


Brian W. Ogilvie said...

This makes me sick. Can you post the addresses (postal and email) of the people responsible in Shawnee County and Topeka for these decisions? It would help those of us who'd like to affirm our commitment to a civilized world and to the taxes that such a commitment requires.

Brian W. Ogilvie said...

Whoops, forgot to request email followups, so I'm just posting another comment to be sure I get them.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Brian, thanks for being willing to take action. Probably the most effective thing to do is look up the government address of the Topeka city councilors and the Shawnee county D.A. and write to them directly.

Joel said...

Fucking Topeka.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Dear readers: In spite of my position against Midwest-bashing, I'm going to give Joel a pass on this, since he grew up and lived most of his life within a couple of hours of Topeka.

chris said...

Incidentally, Topeka also is the home of the Westboro Baptist Church.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

True enough. But I think the issue is bigger than one city and its environs.

Joel said...

I don't blame Topeka for Westboro. Fred Phelps could've lived anywhere. This is different. But I'll try to refrain from further cursing.

The History Enthusiast said...

My family lives in Topeka, and the state is in absolutely dire financial straights. I'm not saying this to absolve those who've made this outrageously terrible decision, but merely as a partial explanation. I have family members in the state government, and it's a nightmare.

Also, not a single person I know in the entire state likes the Phelps family. There are regularly "anti-Phelps" picketers and Westboro Baptist Church is shunned by the entire Topeka community. They are by no means part of the Baptist denomination, either.

I'm so tired of Kansas only getting crappy press (creationism, the Phelps family, BTK, the brain-eating amoeba, etc.). There are a lot of good-hearted people in that state. Maybe I need to start a blog that posts the great things about Kansas, like that fact that Kansas students regularly do great at National History Day!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ History Enthusiast: I am a fan of Kansas -- From Pryde's in KC (okay, technically that's on the Missouri side) to Lawrence's young anarchists to the Flint Hills to the Garden of Eden in Lucas. What I'm not a fan of is policies like this one.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Well, I suspect the reason domestic battery is a misdemeanor is that it adds an option for prosecutors when people's acts don't quite fall into already-defined felonies. I mean, you can already get charged with rape, murder, or assault, which are felonies - you don't need to get charged with domestic rape, domestic murder, domestic assault. I would suspect domestic battery got added as a way to charge people for behavior that falls outside traditional felonies.

The other thing is that the Topeka mayor kind of has a point. Repealing the domestic battery portion of the city ordinance doesn't make the behavior legal - it just means that the city no longer has the authority to prosecute it. It'd be like the city decriminalizing murder - that's not going to make murder legal; murder still violates state law. The city isn't an autonomous entity, in that people who violate state laws in the city are prosecuted whether or not the city also makes the behavior illegal. If the city couldn't prosecute the crime any more, the state would therefore have to. (And in fact, there are limits on what ordinances cities can pass that conflict with state laws, and city criminal ordinances are probably never going to trump state law.)

I totally agree that it looks really really bad to do this. But if the city doesn't have the resources to prosecute domestic violence, it's better to find a way to make the state do it, than let the actions get a pass because the city doesn't have the resources to prosecute, and the state says, "Well, the city can do it."

The History Enthusiast said...

I agree that, as New Kid puts it, this looks terrible even if it may not be quite as simple as it first appears. I am not a fan of the policy as it is described, but my Kansas defensiveness gets riled quite easily, so forgive me if I overstepped my bounds.

P.S. I was just thinking of Pryde's the other is such a cool store!

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi NK! Good to have an actual legal expert weigh in. Here's the thing: the D.A. has already said that they will NOT prosecute, so I'm not sure that lobbing the ball back into their court will do any good.

And in the meantime, it sends a horrible message to domestic violence victims: protecting you is not cost-effective.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

And as a PS to NK: Yep, refusing to prosecute doesn't make it legal. Call it poetic license in the headline. But I think I've got "not a prosecutable offense" in the text throughout.

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Yeah, I was responding to the title.

Actually, the DA has said they won't prosecute now, while the city does have the power to prosecute. That's not the same thing as saying he wouldn't prosecute if the city repeals that ordinance. They're basically playing a big game of chicken.

What I do want to know is how much the city spends on prosecuting domestic battery as opposed to some other offense that they could have stopped prosecuting. Either they picked domestic battery because they really don't think it's as important as other stuff, or they picked domestic battery because it would be an issue that would galvanize people and make the state have to take responsibility, because it would look so terrible if they didn't. (Much of what cities can regulate through ordinances is terribly boring - where you can put streetlights, for instance - and not going to garner much attention in the press.)

Again, I'm not saying it was the best move on the city's part, but I think it's more complicated than "domestic battery doesn't matter." (I so wish I could find the actual ordinance that defines domestic battery!)

New Kid on the Hallway said...

(Oh wait, I found it, for the curious. Domestic battery is defined exactly like battery [which remains a prosecutable offense] except that it's defined specifically as directed at a family or household member. Battery is a class B offense; the first offense of domestic battery is a class B offense. However, if you're convicted of domestic battery a second time within 5 years of a previous db conviction, it's a class A offense, so you face a tougher punishment, and can be required to enter a domestic violence prevention program.

I throw this out there just to be specific about what would actually change if this were repealed. What is now domestic battery could still be prosecuted and punished as battery. However, you'd lack the options intended to address repeat domestic batterers, which is obviously a problem.)

(I realize it's still sounds like domestic battery isn't important, which isn't okay.)

Anonymous said...

I am a city prosecutor in another state. Our DA won't prosecute domestic violence either so I get stuck with all of them in municipal court. It is extremely frustrating because I cannot order things like anger management counseling or no-contact provisions like our state court can - all I can do is fine them.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Interesting point, anonymous -- limited purview of municipal courts. New Kid, as our resident legal expert, what say you here?