Wednesday, October 12, 2011

If it's happening in Kansas, it must be nuts, right?

Admit it, you kind of think that, don't you? All anyone in the nation ever hears about Kansas is we're the backwards state who did away with evolution in the state science standards. (No one ever mentions how the population rose up against those loons on the state school board and voted every single one of them out the very next chance we got, replacing them with normal people who restored the standards.) We're the home of that wacky, awful Westboro Baptist Church. (It's a "church" of about 50 people all from one family and the rest of Kansas pretty much hates them. We ignore them; it's the rest of you outside of this state who are giving them attention.)

And now it's all over the national news that Topeka, Kansas has now made it legal to commit domestic battery. According to msnbc, "In cash-strapped Topeka, domestic abuse not  illegal."  Makes for a flashy headline and elicits gasps, but it's not true. Domestic battery is still a crime in Topeka. Did everyone get that? Let me write it again, just in case.

Domestic battery is still a crime in Topeka.

Never stopped being one. The city of Topeka had a redundant municipal ordinance, as they do for many misdemeanors. It's standard practice for cities to have municipal ordinances that mirror state misdemeanor statutes. Where there is a redundant municipal ordinance, the District Attorney can turn over prosecution of those offenses to the city prosecutor's office, which the Shawnee County DA did for all redundant misdemeanors in the city of Topeka, a move the DA said was required by budget cuts. (Outside Topeka city limits, the DA's office retained responsibility for all misdemeanor prosecutions.) The city of Topeka balked, pointing out that having to prosecute all those misdemeanors would surpass their budgetary limits. The city pointed specifically to domestic battery cases because those cases a) constitute the largest single block of misdemeanors involved and b) require treatment resources the city doesn't have. So to force those prosecutions back to the DA's office, the city repealed the redundant municipal ordinance.

The territorial pissing match that is going on between the city of Topeka and Shawnee County is frustrating to watch. Neither the city prosecutor's office nor the DA's office really has the resources they should have to function at optimal levels. When budgets get cut and cut and cut, something has to give. It is highly unfortunate that this city vs. county budget dispute has centered around domestic battery, when it could have been DUI or marijuana possession or shoplifting. Of course the city probably picked domestic battery as the center point of the dispute precisely because it would be the most likely to generate controversy.

But it is more unfortunate that the real issue here is being lost in hyperbole and untrue headlines. It's more fun to rail against a city putting its stamp of approval on beating your spouse. It's more interesting to talk about this being a move in the ongoing "war on women." It's more glamorous to weep and wail and gnash teeth than to focus on the real issue here which is what services do we want to receive from our city, county, state, and federal governments and how much of our money are we willing to pay up to ensure those services are provided. Clearly the people of Topeka and Shawnee County need to have this discussion. They may need to think about finding some new direction for the County Commission and the City Council who sets budgets. The citizens of Kansas may need to think about what sort of money we want our local governments to get from the state budget. We probably all need to really think about how much we want to keep chasing more and more and more cuts. Budget cuts and tax cuts are bleeding this state's vital services dry. But we won't get to any of that discussion if we're all caught up in this red herring complaint that domestic battery is now legal in Topeka. It isn't.

In conclusion, domestic battery is most definitely a crime in Topeka, just as it is in every inch of the state of Kansas. But it can't magically get prosecuted if we don't fund the prosecutors' offices.

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