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Cuyahoga County Courts Hold Hearings To Cut Jail Population

During a Saturday hearing at Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas, Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan speaks to a defendant who plead not guilty to a gun possession charge. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]
A judge sits at his bench Saturday before a defendant in an orange jumpsuit in a Cuyahoga County court hearing Saturday.

Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas held its first day of expanded hearings this Saturday. The unprecedented weekend hearings were part of an effort to prepare in case of an outbreak of coronavirus in the jail.

There will be extra hearings at the Justice Center through Thursday of this week. According to court officials, the goal is to bring the average daily population at the jail down by 200.

Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan said 38 court cases were resolved Saturday that would have waited until at least Monday.

“We know that eventually that virus is going to hit our jail,” Sheehan said. “And if that virus hits the jail, our jail will not be able to operate and everything will be crippled.”

Sheehan said the freed up space would be used for isolation of sick inmates or those under investigation for possible coronavirus.

There are no confirmed cases of coronavirus among staff or inmates at the county jail. Court officials were unaware of anyone undergoing testing.

As of Saturday afternoon there were 26 confirmed coronavirus cases in Ohio, including the first case in Cleveland and the first case in Lorain County, according to public health officials. That number is expected to increase as more public and private testing comes online.

Many of the cases heard Saturday showed the challenges of enacting bail reform, even under extraordinary circumstances.

County prosecutor Michael O’Malley said the plan isn’t to release hundreds of prisoners, but to speed up the normal process for as many as possible.

“There will be people going to prison who need to go to prison. There’s going to be people placed in treatment programs that need to be placed in treatment programs. And other people placed on probation,” O’Malley said. “So this is an effort to try to avoid a crisis within the county jail.”

Defense Attorney Mary Catherine Corrigan disinfects a doorknob against coronavirus before exiting a courtroom at the Justice Center during Saturday's special hearings. [Matthew Richmond / ideastream]

In the arraignment room on the 12 th floor, Judge Robert McClelland set bail for defendants appearing by video who otherwise would have waited until Monday.

In several cases, defendants had warrants from municipal courts or were on probation when they were arrested. In those cases, release required approval from other judges. Some inmates had outstanding warrants and couldn’t be released. Several high bails were set for people arrested for violent crimes or after requests by their alleged victims and prosecutors.

In other courtrooms at the Justice Center, defendants were brought to court for plea hearings. In Judge Sheehan’s court, three of the four people who appeared Saturday were released after reaching a plea deal. A fourth decided against a guilty plea on a gun charge at the last moment.

Sheehan said, despite the pressure to reduce the jail population, judges would be careful not to accept pleas under pressure.

No officials from the county jail were available at the courthouse Saturday.

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