Officials talk workload in domestic violence cases

AP News
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Posted: Oct 13, 2011 4:46 PM
Officials talk workload in domestic violence cases

The city of Topeka, which was criticized this week when it repealed an ordinance against domestic violence, offered Thursday to assist the county whose district attorney had decided to stop handling misdemeanor domestic cases because of budget cuts.

Interim City Manager Dan Stanley met with Shawnee County Commission Chairwoman Shelly Buhler, extending an offer for Topeka to handle all remaining misdemeanor cases filed within the city in municipal court. The intent would be to free time and resources for District Attorney Chad Taylor to review and prosecute domestic battery misdemeanors that occur within the city limits.

The back-and-forth began after Taylor said in September that budget cuts were forcing him to stop prosecuting misdemeanors that occur within the city of Topeka, including domestic violence cases. That prompted the city to repeal its domestic battery ordinance Tuesday in a move aimed at requiring Taylor to backtrack and so that the city wouldn't have the bill for the cases. Those decisions sparked concerns that domestic violence cases would go unprosecuted.

Stanley said district court was the appropriate place for people to seek justice for alleged domestic crimes rather than municipal court. He said the city's intent wasn't to minimize the seriousness of the crimes, but to provide adequate prosecution of the cases.

Taylor announced Wednesday that his office would accept sole responsibility for all domestic battery case sent there and that he would review and prosecute the cases on their merits, despite having his budget cut by about $350,000. He also said he would be laying off up to 12 staff members by the end of the year because of the reduced funding.

Buhler said there was no discussion Thursday about additional funding for the district attorney's office or if the city would be willing to help offset expenses. She and Stanley agreed to ask Taylor to provide more information about the costs of operating his office and prosecuting additional cases.

"I think we are glad that the matter has been settled, at least as far as the domestic cases," Buhler said. "We are going to push for a little more of the actual numbers. I think that will give us a better understanding."

Taylor's spokesman, Dakota Loomis, said the district attorney was pleased the city and county are still discussing the situation and hopes the underlying funding issues can be resolved.

"Our office is open to working with all parties to address this issue and will cooperate fully with any and all requests the Shawnee County Commission submits," Loomis said.

Kari Ann Rinker, state coordinator for the Kansas National Organization for Women, said the decision by Taylor to review the cases showed that the public's voice was heard. However, she still was concerned about how many cases will be prosecuted because of scarce resources.

"He still doesn't have adequate funding. The reason he chose not to review the cases was the lack of funding," she said. "Only time will tell."

The city already had been handling 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, and city officials had argued that Topeka can't afford to replicate county services for domestic abuse victims or rent jail space from the county for suspects.

The use of a weapon in an assault or battery makes a crime a felony, and would be handled in state court.

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.

Topeka police said officers had still investigated cases of domestic violence and prepare reports that were being forwarded for prosecution, even after Taylor's announcement last month.

Buhler said the commission would send a letter to Taylor requesting information about his resources and what is needed to operate his office. She said there was no time frame for getting the information back and what action might follow.

"Let's take an honest, hard look at what are the requirements," Stanley said. "We both agree we all want to see adequate prosecutorial services in Topeka and Shawnee County."