Commentary Violence

Violent Abusers Let Out Into Streets of Topeka As County Commission “Downgrades” Domestic Violence to Save Money

Kari Ann Rinker

Government, even at its most basic level, exists to protect citizens within its geographical boundaries.  A fight over a budget has stripped this community of this basic function of protection, from women who need it the most.  We speak from personal experience: Kansas NOW lost our former lobbyist Jana Mackey to an act of relationship violence.

Yesterday, I spoke in front of the Shawnee County Commission about the suspension of prosecution for those arrested for domestic violence and assault in Topeka.  First of all let me say that I understand that times are hard, budgets are being slashed, programs are being cut.  This is happening all across the state of Kansas, in fact all over the nation.  I can say with a fair amount of certainty, however, that I do not know of another town that has made national news for failing to treat domestic violence as a crime. 

Topeka City Councilwomen Sylvia Ortiz was quoted in the Topeka Capitol Journal as stating that the city council needed to  “man up” and let commissioners know “we’re not going to stand for this.”  Well, with all due respect to Councilwoman Ortiz, I took it upon myself to “woman up” to the Commission in Topeka. After spending the day tracking down information and getting up to speed on the Topeka situation, I knew that my presence was necessary. 

It is true that violent abusers are being let out into the streets of Topeka, Kansas with reports of anywhere from 18-30 such releases thus far.  The Shawnee County Commission and the Shawnee County DA, Chad Taylor have willfully created this state of anarchy.  It can be best described as a political fistfight of epic proportions with women being the ones who are taking the brunt of the punches being swung.  The behavior of DA and the Commission continues to threaten the safety of the very community they were elected to serve.  The citizens of Topeka can do nothing but watch, waiting to see how this dangerous, perhaps even deadly game of chicken turns out. 

Government, even at its most basic level, exists to protect citizens within its geographical boundaries.  A fight over a budget has stripped this community of this basic function of protection, from women who need it the most.  Evidently, the County Commission went against the very advice of their own financial officer and conducted a straight across the board cut to the Mr. Taylor’s office. 

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Budgets of District Attorneys in any municipality are largely comprised of personnel costs.  The City of Topeka has had a spike in crime, so having staff is very important to prosecuting cases.  DA Taylor expressed in many meetings on many occasions with this council that he could not absorb this kind of cut and that something had to give.  Many feel that willfully choosing to not prosecute civil misdemeanors, knowing that assault and domestic violence would be included in that choice, is a flagrant abuse of power.  Many feel that DA Taylor picked this approach to get the attention of the community.  It has most certainly succeeded in that regard. 

After conversations with all of arms of government involved, I’ve had my fill of listening to each of them and their finger pointing and blaming games.  I have a set of 5 year old twins at home and it felt a bit like being in one of their scuffles…she did it…no SHE did it…it wasn’t me!   Meanwhile the people who are getting caught in the middle of this finger pointing are the victims, who are the only ones who remain truly, blameless. 

I could go on for quite awhile fueled by my outrage at this almost unbelievable situation, but I would rather do something constructive here.  I would like to make the suggestion that this commission hold an emergency meeting with the council and the DA and at least try to reach a short term solution through the old fashioned art of compromise.  The DA could probably be convinced to carry on with prosecution for a couple of months if only provided with some funding until all parties can make alternative plans for the future, if warranted.  We know that there is little civility in politics these days, but I’d like to think that local government should strive to set the best example for the rest of them. 

Another solution would be for the Shawnee County Commission to admit that they have mishandled the budget.  Maybe they could even review this budget and re-direct the $200,000 that is currently earmarked for golf course irrigation?  Or maybe they could write a letter to Mayor Bill Bunten, who told me that he might be able to help with this situation if the Commission would ask nicely and not just dump it on the City Council, washing their hands of the situation that was of their creation.   

I told the County Commissioners that this should be considered an emergency situation and it should.  Saving women whose lives are quite possibly in imminent danger qualifies as imperative in my book.  The members of my organization can speak from personal experience. Kansas NOW lost our former lobbyist Jana Mackey to an act of relationship violence.  Jana was just 25 years old when her ex-boyfriend murdered her.  The year was 2008. Jana was in law school at KU at the time.  Jana was becoming a lawyer because above all else, she believed in justice.  

I hope that the politicians of Topeka will hear and heed the call for justice that is being sounded within their community and do what is within their power to prevent violent abusers being released into the streets, only abuse again, or even murder young women like Jana.   The political fist fight must end and it must end….NOW.

Kansas NOW would like to encourage your participation in democratic resistance to the commission’s lack of funding and the DA’s poor decision making.   Please email  or call DA Chad Taylor: sncoda@snco.us • 785.233.8200 x4330  and the Shawnee County Commission commission@snco.us • 785.233.8200 x4040.   If you’re in Kansas, join Kansas NOW on Tuesday for peaceful street protest and Topeka City Council meeting. 

Commentary Violence

What Topeka Tells Us: When the Budget Cuts Come, It’s Women and Children First

Jodi Jacobson

This week's power struggle over who would pay for prosecuting domestic violence crimes in Shawnee County, Kansas is both a reflection and a foreshadowing of how anti-tax, anti-government, religiously ideological leaders see their states and our country going. In short, when it comes to making cuts, it's women and children first.

This week, a power struggle ensued between Shawnee County, Kansas and Topeka city officials over who would prosecute domestic abuse cases revealing just how far anti-tax, anti-government ideology is apt to go, and just who it leaves most vulnerable.

It all started when the Shawnee County Commission cut the budget of county District Attorney Chad Taylor, which, Taylor argued, left him without sufficient resources to carry out his job. Taylor, in turn, said he would no longer prosecute cases of domestic violence occuring within the city limits of Topeka because he didn’t have the staff and it was the city’s job to take care of these cases. But Topeka’s mayor and city council disagreed so they repealed the city’s ordinance against domestic violence, leaving it to the discretion of Taylor as to whether, when and how many instances of abuse to prosecute.

This, of course, left women victims of violence unprotected and threatened the release of abusers onto the streets of Kansas’ capital city.

Today, after a huge public outcry both from within and outside of Kansas, led in large part by Kansas NOW, Taylor announced his office will again “commence the review and filing of misdemeanors decriminalized by the City of Topeka.”

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This is a partial victory–the discretion of what cases and how many to prosecute remains in Taylor’s hands with a much-reduced budget, forcing Taylor, in his words, to work with “less staff, less resources, and severe constraints on our ability to effectively seek justice.”

To a large extent, Taylor is not to blame. According to the Topeka City-Journal:

Taylor originally announced that his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanors committed within Topeka after the Shawnee County Commission cut his 2012 budget by nearly $350,000. Taylor said the budget cut would limit his staff to prosecuting all felonies and those misdemeanor crimes committed in Shawnee County outside of the Topeka city limits.

“Over the past three years, my office has consistently demonstrated through actions our commitment to public safety,” Taylor said in a statement.

“When I assumed office as the Shawnee County District Attorney I inherited a backlog of over 4,000 unfiled, unreviewed cases. Within a year this backlog had been reviewed and over 500 new cases were filed.

But with an increase in criminal cases, including a 25 percent increase in adult criminal case filings, the gap between staff and budget just kept growing. Still, he maintains, “our office has worked diligently to combat domestic battery. Over the past three years, the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office has increased misdemeanor domestic battery filings by over 80 percent and convictions by over 50 percent. All these changes were accomplished without any additional county budget funds and with a reduction in staff.”

That, however, obviously became untenable with this latest round of cuts.

“This situation should be recognized by any government that is considering cutting essential government services,” said Kari Ann Rinker, State Director of Kansas NOW. “It seems more often than not that the first area to be cut focuses on the most vulnerable.”

In Kansas,” she continued, “funding for women’s basic health needs has been attacked at the state level by our governor, and now locally in Topeka, at the same time that we are nationally fighting laws that would decimate federal funding for reproductive and sexual health care and fighting a bill, H.R. 358, that would let pregnant women in need of abortion die.”

This, sisters, is our future under the right-wing GOP/Tea Party leadership that governs so many states.  To be clear, several of those who voted to repeal the domestic violence ordinance in Topeka are Democrats.  But the state is controlled by–and the dire budget circumstances created by–the GOP-Tea Party dominated state legislature, led by Brownback, whose budgets have slashed everything from school funding, to psychatric care for children in need to women’s health clinics and beyond.

As I wrote in July, Kansas under Governor Sam Brownback is hardly the “heaven on earth” portrayed in the vision sold by anti-tax, anti-government religiously-ideological extremists of the kind Brownback exemplifies.

Kansans, for example, are becoming poorer. A U.S. Census Bureau study found that the rate of growth in poverty in Kansas outpaced that of the nation writ large.  In 2009, poverty in the state rose 3 percent, as opposed to 1 percent nationwide.  More than 365,000 Kansans live in poverty.

The share of Kansans living in extreme poverty also outpaced the national average, increasing by 1.1. percent as opposed to 0.7 percent for the nation as a whole.  The Census Bureau found there were 153,756 Kansans–5.6 percent of the population–living in extreme poverty in 2009.

The rate of increase in child poverty in Kansas was nearly double that of the United States as a whole. The share of children in Kansas living in poverty increased from 14 percent in 2008 to 17.2 percent in 2009, putting the number of Kansas children living in poverty at 118,029 in 2009. By contrast, child poverty rose 1.9 percent that same year across the country as a whole.

This week’s power play over who will be responsible for prosecuting abusers is but one example of what women and their children in every state are facing as budgets for child nutrition, child health, women’s health, police, teachers, and basic functions of government are cut to the bone so that billionaires like the Koch Brothers can keep that chump change they’d otherwise pay in taxes.

Rinker, like others, is simultaneously both tracking and fighting the onslaught of cuts at the state and local levels in Kansas and underscores that “it will be up to women’s advocates to do this monitoring because similar cuts are being made more and more often at the local level.”

“Grassroots activists,” she argues, “must make a lot of noise about this to protect our rights.” In fact, public officials admit having been overwhelmed by the number of complaints that came in from Kansas and across the country, telling Rinker that she and her colleagues could take full credit for the resumption of prosecutions by Taylor that came about in response to efforts by both the state and national offices of the National Organization for Women, along with CHANGE.org and others.

“We made them do what they are supposed to be doing,” Rinker said.  “Protecting people.”

So one answer is that advocacy works and that the collective advocacy of women and men throughout this country can promote social justice and ensure government accountability, at least to a certain extent.

Still, it is only a partial win. The state is governed by an anti-tax governor and legislature, the city of Topeka has not reversed its repeal of its domestic violence law, and Taylor still has too few resources to do his job.

The more important therefore question is: Why, in a country in which Presidential candidates constantly beat their chests about “exceptionalism” are we allowing a dangerous politico-religious ideology to undermine the fundamental rights and protections of our own citizens?

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Follow Jodi on Twitter: @jljacobson

News Violence

In 7-to-3 Vote, Topeka City Council Fails to Reverse Decision Releasing Domestic Abusers From Jail to “Save Money”

Kari Ann Rinker

The Topeka City Council tonight failed to repeal an ordinance allowing domestic abusers to leave jail to save money, leaving the women of Topeka with no recourse against abuse within the city. If they wish for justice to be served, women will have to be geographically located outside of the city limits... and even that is no guarantee of protection.

Topeka, KSDomestic violence abusers will continue to roam free within Topeka city limits, now making Topeka, Kansas the homophobia and domestic violence capitol of the world.  A vote by the Topeka City Council tonight to repeal their municipal city ordinance allowing domestic abusers to leave jail to save money–approved 7 to 3–leaves the women of Topeka with no recourse against abuse within the city.  If they wish for justice to be served, they will have to be geographically located outside of the city limits, within Shawnee County. 

Mayor Bunten, who has made numerous promises of working toward a compromise, admitted tonight that he hasn’t even talked to Shawnee County DA Chad Taylor in ten days. Ten days of batterers being let free to repeat their abuse. 

Mayor Bunten also stated that the Shawnee County DA would be forced into the position of prosecuting domestic violence crimes with the repeal of the city ordinance.  That statement was incorrect, in fact, the DA’s prosecutorial power is discretionary.  This leaves the women of Topeka without any recourse against their abusers. 

The only thing accomplished by tonight’s action was to appoint the city manager to the task of negotiating with a County Commission that has repeatedly stated that they have “no control” over the DA Chad Taylor.  These negotiations are being entered into with absolutely no time line. If the recent histories of both parties are any indication, the women of Topeka could be waiting a very long time for any resolution.  While the City Council may believe that they have shirked their responsibilities and can now avoid the discussion, the citizens of Topeka should continue to hold them accountable for their unwillingness to prosecute dangerous criminals within their community.

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Kansas NOW was told that as of this morning the City Council had received 3,000 emails, almost causing a crash to their system.  I challenge those infuriated by the action of this Council to send more emails, make more calls and hold them accountable for this action of dangerous consequence.  

Kansas NOW thanks council members Denise Everhart, Larry Wolgast and Richard Harmon for standing up for the women of Topeka and not letting petty political fights interrupt the pursuit of justice.