Domestic Violence: Dollars and Sense

November 21, 2001

October is National Domestic Violence Awareness month, and although those that are connected with addressing this issue understand the physical and psychological impact all too well, we tend to forget that this is an issue that affects the broader community.  Today, there is a lot of discussion about the economy and the best way to address our problems.  Politically, the questions are whether we “cut spending” or “tax the job creators.”  However, life is always more complex and there is never going to be a one-fix-for-all solution.  Domestic violence and how we address it needs another look, especially in light of some of the nonsensical debates that are occurring.

For example recently, the Kansas City Star reported that the Topeka City Council voted to repeal the city’s law against misdemeanor domestic battery.  Why?  The repeal did not occur because the Council carefully considered data surrounding best practices for addressing domestic violence.  Instead, it was based on a political dogfight with the District Attorney underwritten by the issue of money.  The story goes that a mandate had been placed on the Shawnee District Attorney’s Office to slash its budget by 10 percent.  In fact, all government entities received the same mandate.  How the Council arrived at this 10 percent across-the-board cut is not clear from the news articles.  Nevertheless, the District Attorney’s response was essentially horrifying.  Instead of utilizing diplomacy and perhaps examining the way his office conducts business, Chad Taylor simply directed that all misdemeanor domestic violence cases be redirected to the City Attorney for prosecution.  In other words, the District Attorney would no longer be prosecuting misdemeanor domestic battery cases.  The Topeka Council’s response was equally ridiculous; repeal the domestic battery ordinances so that the City Attorney would have no legal jurisdiction to prosecute the battery cases.

Notwithstanding the ethically absent decisions by both the District Attorney and the Topeka Council, consider the economics for a moment.  At issue is a 10 percent cut.  The New York Times reported that the Shawnee District Attorney had to cut 10 percent from his $3.5 million budget, or about $350,000.  Put this number in context.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has reported that intimate partner violence costs more than $5.8 billion dollars per year, of which $4.1 billion are healthcare-related costs arising from domestic violence incidences.  Moreover, the data demonstrates that 8 million days of paid work are lost every year, or put another way, it is the loss of about 32,000 full-time jobs.

Of course Topeka is not responsible for the entire $5.8 billion of loss, but giving Shawnee and Topeka the benefit of the doubt, assume an equal distribution of loss due to intimate partner violence across the United States.  Kansas’s share would be about $116 million.  If only one percent of Kansas’s share of the losses occurred in Topeka, then that would place Topeka’s share at about $1,160,000.  Granted, there are many ‘what-ifs’ in this scenario, but it is not unlikely.   What is the point?

The point is that if one wanted to conduct a cost-benefit analysis about the costs of not prosecuting domestic violence cases, then the answer is that the District Attorney is refusing to spend 30 percent of the total losses to forego 100 percent of it.  Moreover, the District Attorney and the Council have missed an even bigger point.  Misdemeanor domestic violence cases are important for two reasons.  First, the misdemeanor cases portend risk of future violence.  In fact, an October 2004 study conducted by the Urban Affairs Center at the University of Toledo, in Ohio found that “the most powerful influence on domestic violence recidivism was a history of arrests on domestic violence charges.”  The second reason is that even in misdemeanor domestic violence cases, the prosecutor can ask for protective and remedial, legally enforceable remedies, i.e., orders of protection and restitution.  Although the state doesn’t represent the victim individually, the fact that the state can ask courts to impose protective orders and restitution means that the burden of seeking those remedies does not have to be borne by the victim.  So, if the District Attorney will not do it and the City Attorney cannot, then victims of domestic violence will have to resort to the colonial days of prosecution, i.e., where the individual prosecutes the defendant rather than the state.  That also means that almost zero percent of the losses will be recovered all in order to save $350,000.