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Big Questions About Cuyahoga County's Proposed Diversion Center

Cuyahoga County Councilman Michael Gallagher, who heads the county's public safety committee, questions Judge Kristin Sweeney from the juvenile court. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
County Councilman Michael Gallagher at a public safety committee meeting on the biennial budget.

Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish’s proposed 2020-2021 budget includes $2.5 million for a new diversion center. The facility would allow the county to divert “court-involved individuals with severe mental illnesses from the County Jail.”

During a Monday budget hearing, several council members had questions about how it would work. But answers were in short supply.

“And when does it [the diversion center] come to council?” asked Councilman Michael Gallagher, who is chairman of the public safety committee.

“On the diversion center, do we have a target date for when we expect to have a plan in place as to what the model is going to be and where it’s going to be located, and et cetera?” asked Finance and Budgeting Committee Chairman Dale Miller.

Brandy Carney, Cuyahoga County’s head of public safety, said the county is waiting for recommendations from consultants for answers to those questions, among others.

Councilwoman Sunny Simon asked if the administration will send a suspect to the center before arrest or any court appearances.

“I would absolutely say the group in hand has not decided on what the right model is,” said Carney. “That’s just one option that we’re looking at.”

Administrative Judge John Russo, who also appeared at the hearing to help outline the court budget, offered little clarity.

“That total diversion is, I think, what we’re looking at,” said Russo. “We don’t know exactly what it would like but I believe it would be all-encompassing.”

The definition of “total diversion” was not provided. 

Juvenile court requests more money

Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Kristin Sweeney was the only official who asked for funding beyond Budish’s initial budget request, including an additional $3.5 million to hire 10 officers for the detention center, two human resources personnel and a psychiatric nurse. Sweeney is also seeking funding for an electronic health records system.

Hiring missteps have been made in the past and more people are needed for recruitment and background checks, she said.

“And I’m really not interested in taking any risks in hiring somebody who should not be hired because of stuff that’s lurking in their background that’s a time bomb,” Sweeney said.

Officers in the juvenile detention center have been caught organizing fight clubs and splashing urine on incarcerated teenagers.

In spite of her request for more officer funding, according to Sweeney the jail is in compliance with the state’s legally required ratio of one officer for every 12 residents.

“This is a want on your part, it’s an ideal on your part,” Gallagher, questioning the need for more officers. “The state law is the state law and we’re in compliance with state law.”

Miller appeared more sympathetic to Sweeney’s requests, which Russo also supported.

“I’m wary of accrediting bodies,” Miller said. “I’m more interested in your own reports, on what your operational needs are and that I take very seriously.”

Hearings on the public safety portion of the county budget proposal continue Tuesday. Departmental hearings end this week and budget amendments are due in November.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.