By Alexandria Sharpe (’14)
October was National Domestic Violence Awareness month. In that same month, Topeka, Kansas—facing severe budget shortfalls—repealed its domestic violence law, decriminalizing the behavior. Misdemeanor domestic violence incidents would no longer be investigated or prosecuted. Only those cases which involve the use of a weapon in assault or battery—elevating the crime to the status of felony—would be prosecuted. This decision further obscures an already hidden crime.
Repealing the law of domestic violence as a crime perpetuates the silence of those who suffer at the hands of their abusers. It also leaves these abusers with power. They may now say that their behavior isn’t wrong in the eyes of the law, and mean it. It may still be morally frowned upon, but now it is as if the law doesn’t recognize their behavior as legally significant. Abusers may use the lack of a legal way out of abuse as a threat against those they abuse.
The message being sent by Topeka seems to be that while domestic violence may be morally frowned upon, the law says that it is not a punishable crime; that domestic abuse isn’t a threat to society unless a weapon is involved.
The present condition in Kansas leaves it so that those who assault other individuals in a domestic case can be arrested, but will only be held for some hours. Abusers are repeat offenders and leave a trail of damaged individuals who may cope by picking up such behaviors and using it to harm themselves and others. When they offenders are released, they will be seeking revenge.
While there are other methods to reach and protect domestic violence survivors, the law has been an important aspect of protecting them. Even if a person gets out of a situation of domestic violence, their abusers sometimes follow after them. Laws in other states have granted protection from abusers. There is the option of placing a restraining order against an abuser. If domestic violence isn’t a crime, implementingthis method of protection is further complicated.
What does this repeal mean for anti-domestic violence advocacy organizations? The legal division of the work that they do has vanished. They can no longer tell those who come to them that the law will support them by keeping their abusers out of their lives. Since domestic violence isn’t a crime, it won’t be punished by law. With no law to be enforced, simply getting individuals out of abusive situations won’t be enough. The fear that will result from this new legal reality will also probably leave people feeling forced to stay in abusive situations. They may have no other option of safety and will be left under their abusers control once again.
Domestic violence has always been underreported. This repeal, enacted under terms of financial bargaining, may leave it silenced. Now that there is no law to act as a means of protection for targets of domestic violence and a source of punishment for abusers, there will be fewer survivors.
Alexandria Sharpe is a staff editor for BHRR.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user mtsofan]