Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Domestic violence: Figure it out yourself?

A recent blog post on Feminist Legal Theory explains how Topeka, Kansas decided to repeal its city ordinance outlawing domestic violence. While this does sound shocking, the Topeka repeal was in response to the Shawnee County District Attorney's decision to merely stop prosecuting misdemeanors, which included domestic violence. DA Chad Taylor explained that his office is facing a 10% budget cut, forcing him to lay off 11 of his 63 employees.

Kansas criminal law is a little different than that in California. The state employs both municipal and state courts, so while the state prosecutes and criminalizes most criminal conduct under state law and in state courts, local ordinances can do the same in their municipal courts. Where they do, both the city and state will have concurrent jurisdiction. Now, most of the time the city defers to the county prosecutor, currently, the only crimes Kansas cities prosecute are simple assault and battery on its police officers.

So when DA Taylor said that his county office will no longer prosecute these crimes, that left their enforcement to the city and municipal court. Topeka, in the face of increased burdens on their small municipal court system, decided to remove the city domestic violence ordinance altogether. Basically, it’s a game of chicken.

But Shawnee County doesn't only include Topeka. Nine unincorporated cities are in the county, and outside of Topeka the largest city is Silver Lake with a population of around 1,300. The fifth largest town, Willard, has a population of 86. My ConLaw II class is bigger. How will the rural communities deal with domestic violence now that the county prosecutor won't pick up the cases?

In Professor Pruitt's Law and Rural Livelihood class, we often talk about how rural communities often try to solve legal issues on their own. For instance, in our last class we watched "Winter's Bone," featuring the story of a girl trying to find her possibly bond-jumping father in order to save the family home. The protagonist ends up doing what law enforcement can't (or won’t), by crawling through the underbelly of her small town she uncovers the truth and... well I won't give away the ending. But the point is that law enforcement was completely ineffective.

Combine that self-help legalism with the new self-mandated ineffectiveness of the county prosecutor, and domestic violence victims are put in an impossible position. Considering that many domestic violence cases go unreported, what happens when reporting them doesn’t lead to anything at all? When just isn’t a crime? How will the community respond to the rural, domestic violence victim?

One argument we can consider is that rural areas might be behind the times when it comes to women's rights issues. Looking at "Winter's Bone," Ree Dolly, the young heroine, is frequently beaten, slapped, and abused. No one seems to thinks twice about it. At one point, a male character in the movie threatens to hit his wife unless his wife shuts up. The other characters didn’t seem to care at all.

The other argument is that due to the lack anonymity, the community will rally around the victim, seeing her scars and bruises, and demand justice for her.

Personally, I think the second argument is unlikely to prevail when we recall another recurring rural characterization: mind one’s own business. While we often talk about close-knit rural communities, we also talk about how some rural communities are not even loose-knit. As we've seen, some communities don't know a single thing about their neighbors and have no desire to get involved.

Fact of the matter is, the realities of rural life only exacerbate the problems of domestic violence victims. Lack of anonymity can make them suffer embarrassment (whether real or imagined). Poor infrastructure will mean that they might have reduced access to medical care and fewer institutional resources to reach out to. As Professor Pruitt has discussed, place matters for domestic violence victims.


ScottA. said...

There is also the possibility of vigilante justice. The show Family Guy crassly tried to touch on this, but it is an option that some rural people turn to.

When I was young, I remember some adults talking about the whooping a man received from his father and brothers-in-law in retribution for hitting his wife (the other men's daughter and sister). A couple of cop friends have also talked about wife beaters that "fell down" a couple times when they went to a bar or some other gathering spot filled with people who were not keen on using women or children as punching bags.

This may be a rural solution (urban too in many circumstances) when the law cannot intervene, but it is also a violent solution that often begets more violence.

Hopefully the DA's comments in this news story is just some saber rattling to get more attention to budget problems.

Jason said...

These decisions by DAs Office's always seem more as threats and a way of calling attention to the budget problems than actual concrete plans. In the end it seems to work though. Many cities end up finding a way to rebudget, obtain a grant, or simply "find" the money after citizens start to voice their concerns.

But budgets' may be tight and the DA could be looking at cases that generally consume a lot of resources but accomplish little. The dynamic of a violent relationship is a confusing one. As a police officer and with my time spent working in the domestic violence unit at the Sacramento DAs office, I have encountered plenty of DV situations where both parties hate each other one day but go running back in love the next. Its possible the DA viewed the DV cases as a drain on the resources (more than other prosecutions) and decided to cut them from the list first.

Scarecrow said...

What's sad is that the poor economy will likely lead to higher rates of abuse as unemployed spouses relieve their frustration on their partners. The DA's announcement seems rather self-serving to me. Why let residents know their bad behavior won't be prosecuted, unless you hope to get more funding? While the target certainly seems to be the city of Topeka, the DA certainly doesn't seem to care that rural residents won't have any other options but the self-help ones suggested by Scott.

Namora said...

This article made me think about the reading we have done on spatial inequality and justice deserts. In addition to vigilante justice, informal order, and other factors that particularly affect the issue of domestic violence in rural communities, there is the huge lack of access to justice. For example, where and how to I get to somewhere to even get a restraining order if I live in Rhee's Appalachian area? Let alone how do I get it enforced if I don't get phone service?

oceguera said...

Thanks for this well written post. I agree with Scarecrow's comment, a bad economy will only put fuel to this fire. Using these excuses of a bad economy help support the idea that women (and I acknowledge that men are also the victims of domestic violence (DV), however, overwhelming women are found to be victims in this society) are disposable and we will not care for the violence targeting them in their homes. The receding of the state in bad economic times is not a new phenomena. It happens a few years, (it happened in the 70s and 80s). More often than not, these cuts affect women, children, poor people and communities of color. There are have been successful stories of communities coming together to find an alternative way of addressing domestic violence that doesn't involve the police or the institutional justice system. Transformative justice and community accountability circles have changed the dynamics between the "victim" and "perpetrator". This however, is due to the fact that police intervention in DV often doesn't actually have a positive tranformative experience for the survivor. There is only so much the police can do (arrest perpetrator, hold them in jail, or incarcerate them) and this only feeds an vicious cycle of violence with in the community. Still, these "successful" stories/cases have taken place in predominantly urban areas. So the question still stands, do rural communities face a harder time dealing with DV cases because law enforcement is not present? Or are there real opportunities to create alternative ways of addressing violence in the community that doesn't produce more violence?