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Cuyahoga County's juvenile jail is a 'tinderbox' due to understaffing, court officials tell council

Broken glass looking into a room at the juvenile justice detention center in Cleveland.
Damaged windows from an August 2021 riot at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center on Cleveland's East Side.

Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court administrators told Cuyahoga County Council's public safety committee Tuesday that the detention facility on Cleveland's East Side is struggling with a years-long staffing shortage that has created a dangerous environment for staff and the children in their care.

The shortage was at its worst two years ago, said Court Administrator Tim McDevitt.

“I can tell you the summer of 2021 was a difficult time for our staff," McDevitt said. "They worked an incredible number of overtime hours to keep our building safe.”

That summer was marked by at least one violent incident — described by a court spokesperson as "vandalism" but depicted in several incident reports filed by staff as an overnight riot in two separate housing units that included the barricading of a room, broken windows and at least one apparent attempted suicide.

Two years later, McDevitt visited the council to ask for money for additional staff and raises for current workers, arguing the situation, while slightly improved, is still untenable.

The county used the staffing levels from the 12th week of 2021, the year of the riot, to set the staffing level in the most recent budget — 88 officers — and to establish funding for the next two years, according to McDevitt. The court has been able to increase staffing to 110.

That still leaves the facility without the number of staff needed to run the operation, according to McDevitt. The shortage has forced officers to work double shifts more than 30 times per week, leading to staff burnout and costing the court around $5 million, he said.

The problem has been festering for years, Juvenile Court Magistrate Mark Stanton told council.

“The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center is an authentic tinder box," Stanton said. "And it’s not a tinder box just today, on September 19, 2023. This is an unfortunate situation which has prevailed since the late 2010s.”

Stanton told council officers should be paid as much as corrections officers at the county's Downtown jail, where new officers will make $ 26.50 an hour starting in 2025.

Staff at the detention facility have not had a union since 2020 when court administrators ended contract negotiations.

Safety committee chairman Michael Gallagher said he would meet with the county administration about increasing funding.

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