- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 11, 2011

TOPEKA, Kan. — Over the past month, one by one, people suspected in domestic battery cases here have been set free, with no charges against them.

Prosecutors say they’re overwhelmed with felonies, and faced with budget cuts, can’t afford to pursue the cases.

Busted budgets have forced tough decisions by governments and law enforcement officials nationwide, but a Kansas prosecutor’s move to stop investigating domestic abuse and other misdemeanor cases has angered victims’ advocates, who say austerity has gone too far.

The advocates are also outraged by the response from the capital city of Topeka, where the council and mayor were scheduled Tuesday night to consider repealing an ordinance against domestic violence, a move designed to make sure the city can’t be stuck with the bill for prosecuting such cases. But city and county officials also were hoping to strike a deal to end the budget dispute.

“It’s playing a game of chicken with people’s lives,” said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I can guarantee that people who are abusing are using this as a way to say, ‘See, I told you that nobody cares.’ “

Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor says he knew his decision would upset people, but contends his hand was forced by the 10 percent cut in his budget for 2012, which he says will force him to lay off staff. He said he considered employee furloughs and “every angle” before making his announcement in early September.

“We never wanted this to happen,” he said. “I never thought we’d be at this point.”

Topeka has had at least 35 reported incidents of domestic battery or assault since early September. Those cases are not being pursued, and as of Oct. 7, 18 people jailed have been released without facing charges, Topeka police say. 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.

Mr. Taylor’s decision has prompted furious reactions nationally, and county commissioners say they’ve received hundreds of emails in the past few days from people upset by Mr. Taylor’s move and the city’s response. It doesn’t help that the possible repeal of the ordinance comes during National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

“It can’t continue like this. They have to be prosecuted,” said County Commissioner Ted Ensley, a Democrat, who fears that some abusers, if not prosecuted, could “go back and cause a death of a woman or a child.”

In its memo that the planned budget cut would force it to drop its prosecution of misdemeanors occurring within Topeka’s city limits, Mr. Taylor’s office said, “Of greatest concern are domestic violence cases.”

Topeka, with its existing ordinance against domestic violence, could take over prosecuting cases and file them in its municipal court. But city officials say Topeka can’t handle the $74-a-day cost per inmate of renting space from the county to jail several hundred suspected abusers or hiring additional staff to handle prosecutions.

The city already handles 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.