From the editor
// Samantha Thompson

As unelected citizens of Canada, we don’t have as much power as we like to pretend we do. The most power that we have in a “democratic” society is when we cast our ballots during an election. Once our ballots are cast, however, we surrender any ability to control what happens next. The elected politicians go off to City Hall, the Legislature, or the House of Commons and sit in big comfy chairs and act like they rule the world (which they do). Once elected, they don’t have to listen to citizen concerns, and there is no real way to keep them accountable.

Late last week, it was announced that Topeka, a city in Kansas, would officially be repealing its law on domestic violence. Although the county district attorney has not been prosecuting domestic violence since September, the repeal of the law has caused an uproar – with good reason. Since the city stopped new prosecutions, there have been at least 35 reported cases of domestic battery or assault, and 18 people who were jailed were then released without facing charges. Elected officials did not see these statistics as persuasive enough to prevent the decriminalization of domestic violence, however.

The reason for the decriminalization is, of course, money. The city has cited budget shortfalls, resulting in an inability to provide the funding necessary to keep those charged with domestic violence in jails. The county, too, has listed a lack of funding for their inability to prosecute these cases. It has also been stated by Topeka’s city council that repealing the law will encourage the district to take on the prosecution of these cases, which is where they feel the jurisdiction should be. Interim city manager Dan Stanley told the Associated Press that deciding to repeal the law allows them to “negotiate from a position of strength.”

While the city and the county duke it out, cases of domestic violence will go unpunished, which is a significant problem. “I absolutely do not understand it,” said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, to the Associated Press. “It’s really outrageous that they’re playing with family safety to see who blinks first. People could die while they’re waiting to straighten this out.”

The decriminalization of such a serious crime is ultimately an irresponsible decision, particularly for a category of crime in which a significant number of incidents go unreported to police every year. It is a strange message to be broadcasting to victims of domestic violence: that their situation is not serious enough to be prosecuted, and that it is not considered a “crime” under the law, despite the fact that they have been assaulted by violent criminals.

Several days after the announcement of the law repeal, likely because of the heavy criticism from the public that followed the decision, Shawnee County District Attorney Chad Taylor agreed to step forward and review the cases while the budgetary battle between Topeka and Shawnee County continued. Although citizen opinion was acknowleged in this situation, the reality is that there is no system of accountability in place that ensures that politicians have to listen to the citizens once they have been elected. The domestic violence law should never have been repealed in order to balance a budget.

Because establishing consensus between politicians and the public is time-consuming, democratic systems elect small numbers of people who are supposed to represent entire populations. However, elected officials often forget their constituents and vote according to their own personal interests, rather than the needs of their voters. Balanced budgets (aka “the Economy”) become more important than any other issue, and are generally used during campaigning to show that a candidate is responsible.

This is a clear indication of an irresponsible government, as a responsible government would prioritize human rights over every other budget line item. Supporting equal rights should never be a choice. Although this example occurred in America, the same kinds of bad decisions are frequently made in Canada as well: the tar sands, for example. That we have to find a balance between supporting equal rights and maintaining finances in the first place, and that the rights of individuals are not automatically prioritized, reveals more about our society and its systemic problems than anything else ever could.

//Samantha Thompson, editor-in-chief

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© 2011 The Capilano Courier. phone: 604.984.4949 fax: 604.984.1787 email: editor@capilanocourier.com