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The “Straight Release” Problem: Lack of Jail Space Sees Criminals Walk Free

Wednesday, May 16, 2001 at 3:08 PM

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Around 7,000 alleged criminals were "straight released" last year, a policy which for the arrest, booking and then release of certain criminals back into society sometimes within a matter of hours. Although this policy isn't new to Cleveland, some city officials just found out a less than two months ago. Now, policy makers are trying to figure out a solution to the straight release problem that is being blamed for the death of at least one Cleveland woman. Although no local policy makers claim to support the program they won't end it, because there is no viable alternative to deal with the lack of jail space - at least not one everyone has agreed on. Meanwhile the political debate continues as city officials try to determine whether they can eventually change the police straight release policy or end it. 90.3's Tarice Sims reports.

Tarice Sims- Susan Locke became what some policy makers believe to be a victim of the Straight Release Program. Locke was murdered on June 7th 1999 at her job in the Bond Court building in downtown. The alleged killer was the late Victor Washington, a career criminal, who slipped through the cracks of the law enforcement system because of a mistaken identity. Tim McGinty is a judge with the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

Tim McGinty- Victor Washington should have been in prison - they kept arresting and releasing him on serious charges including assault of a police officer. That police officer was violently opposed and his superiors were violently opposed to the straight release but that is the city of Cleveland’s policy. And as a result of that terrible decision making this habitual criminal to no ones surprise in law enforcement committed another burglary and in the process encountered this woman working late and she was beaten to death.

TS- Judge McGinty has studied the issue of straight releasing involving alleged criminals like Washington. He even wrote a detailed report which he shared with City Council to introduce them to the policy. During a public safety meeting at City Hall earlier this month city officials debated the cause and definition of straight release. McGinty says straight release is a result of blatant mismanagement.

TM- If the city of Cleveland were a business it’d be out of business. If the police department were running the business they’d be in bankruptcy court. They are not operating efficiently. They are misusing resources.

TS- But Mayor Mike White’s administration says the problem is more complicated then that. A spokesperson for the Mayor says the policy was instituted before the White administration came into office. The first time straight release was used was in 1988 under the general police ordered 3188. Acting Safety Director Fred Szabo says straight release was modified in 1994 by Cuyahoga county prosecutors, judges, the grand jury, the Cleveland Police and the Department of Public Safety.

Fred Szabo- I think you have to look at this in terms of there are only a limited number of jail spaces that are available and you have to put those persons who pose the largest threat to the community in those jail spaces.

TS- Mayor White says he doesn’t like the program, but the cities options to change the situation are limited. The White administration says funds in the city budget that were intended for jail expansion were cut. Oddly enough the Cleveland City Council which appropriates fund in the budget just learned of the program little over a month ago. Councilman Bill Patmon is head of the finance committee. He says after hearing about this policy council responded immediately.

Bill Patmon- The city council actually put more money in the budget this year to than was originally proposed to help open the closed wing of the work house. The closure of the work house was strictly an administration decision just as straight release is an administrative decision. So I don’t know why this blame game is going on.

TS- Patmon says city council has put an additional $250,000 in the 2001 budget. Half of the money is for additional prosecutors, the other half will go towards re-opening a wing of the city work house, to house alleged criminals instead of releasing them. The jail is made to hold close to 200 people and a wing for an additional 30 beds has been closed for years. But opening additional beds is only part of the solution. Brian Rothenberg is the spokesperson for Mayor White.

Brian Rothenberg- I know we are looking at all kinds of alternatives and when it comes to jails the department of public safety is meeting with the county right now, even in terms of a long term jail facility.

TS- Cuyahoga County rents space from neighboring counties to make up for the lack of space in jails. City officials say they might consider that as an option.

In the meantime, the City Council Public Safety Committee and members of Mayor White’s administration will continue their discussions on the controversial straight release program later today. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 WCPN 90.3 FM.

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