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Cuyahoga County Executive wants public defenders to take more juvenile cases headed to adult court

Juvenile Justice Center.jpg
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court building in Cleveland. In 2020 Cuyahoga County sent more juveniles to adult prison than the next four counties in Ohio combined, according to data compiled by the Children’s Law Center.

A proposal in Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne’s 2025 budget to change legal representation for some juvenile court cases is facing backlash from members of county council.

Ronayne’s budget would take $650,000 out of the juvenile court’s budget for assigned counsel — attorneys appointed when a defendant can’t afford one — and increase the public defender’s budget by the same amount.

The idea, according to testimony from advocates and the Ronayne administration at a council budget hearing last week, is to end the use of assigned counsel when a juvenile faces transfer to adult court. Instead, all those cases would go to the public defender’s office.

That's because advocates believe public defenders do a better job keeping those cases out of adult court and that's good for young people, said Ginger Van Wagenen, of Greater Cleveland Congregations, a coalition of religious organizations in Northeast Ohio.

“We don’t minimize the seriousness of their offenses or the impact on their victims, but we do feel very strongly that children are children and should be treated as such,” Van Wagenen told council during the public comment period.

GCC has been working to reduce juvenile bindovers for more than a year and representatives met with Ronayne, court officials and the public defender’s office starting in August, Van Wagenen said.

In 2020 Cuyahoga County sent more juveniles to adult prison than the next four counties in Ohio combined, according to data compiled by the Children’s Law Center.

But the proposal faces headwinds. During last week’s budget hearing, the juvenile court’s administrative judge, Thomas O’Malley, did not support the proposed change.

“It’s surprising, but it was expected,” said O’Malley. “I met with the GCC and they asked if we would commit to assigning 100% of indigent juveniles to the public defender’s office, and I indicated to them that could never happen. There’s too many conflicts.”

O’Malley mentioned the highly publicized case over the summer where several juveniles were captured on camera assaulting a man outside a gas station. O’Malley said in that case only one of the accused juveniles could be represented by the public defender’s office, because of conflicts of interest, the rest were given assigned counsel.

The GCC’s proposal includes the exclusion of cases where the public defender’s office faces a conflict of interest.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Ronayne said the change is meant to protect children in the justice system.

“The administration believes, and research supports, that in many cases, youth offenders assigned to public defenders have better outcomes,” said Communications Director Kelly Woodard.

Several councilmembers criticized the proposal because, under state law, courts develop their budgets independently and the executive has no control over personnel or spending priorities. Courts can sue the county if their budgets are too small for their operations.

“This is an anomaly and not a good anomaly because, as I told the people from the GCC, we don’t get involved in separately elected individuals’ budgets until they’re presented to us,” said District 5 Councilmember Michael Gallagher, whose district includes Strongsville and Olmsted Falls. “It’s wrong. It’s unacceptable.”

Woodard said the administration will have “a dialogue” with the court, public defender and council about the proposal.

“The administration makes budgetary proposals in consultation with stakeholders that are then formalized after the approval of County Council,” Woodard wrote.

This is not the first disagreement regarding the juvenile court's budget. But opponents of Ronayne's proposal were particularly critical of a perceived attempt to change how the court handles cases that come in front of it.

“My understanding is that the belief is that if you are represented by the public defender’s office in juvenile court then you get better representation than if you are assigned an attorney,” said O’Malley.

O’Malley said he has not received complaints that an assigned attorney was not competent.

Cuyahoga County Public Defender Cullen Sweeney appeared at council during the same hearing to present his department’s budget. According to Sweeney, the change can only happen if judges in administrative court adopt the policy.

He said so far his office has had some success with the bindover cases it’s receiving.

In 2022, his office created a new position called a “vertical defender” that only handles juveniles facing adult court.

So far, 90% of the juveniles represented by that attorney have avoided what’s known as “discretionary bindover” where a judge can decide, based on age, history and the nature of the crime, to send them to adult court.

And about 45% of those facing “mandatory bindover,” where the child is supposed to automatically go to adult court, were still kept in juvenile court.

Sweeney asked council to fund an additional attorney for that program.

As for the additional $650,000 to start handling all bindover cases, council will revisit the proposal at a future hearing.

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