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Cuyahoga County Council removes funding for juvenile cases from public defender budget

napoleon harris greater cleveland congregations
Cuyahoga County Council
Pastor Napoleon Harris of Antioch Baptist Church speaks in favor of expanding the Cuyahoga County Public Defender's budget to handle more juvenile cases at Cuyahoga County Council on Nov. 11, 2023.

Cuyahoga County Council voted Monday to send $650,000 in the public defender’s budget for the next two years back to the county’s juvenile court.

The 9-2 vote ends a debate, for now, over whether the county’s public defender should receive more cases when a juvenile is facing trial in adult court.

Councilmember Cheryl Stephens was one of the ‘no’ votes. Stephens said council now has to find a different solution to address the issue.

“We continue to lose more and more young boys of brown and black color to a justice system which they never return from as whole adults,” Stephens said. “It is incumbent on us to find a way to find a better solution.”

According to research from the Greater Cleveland Congregations, which advocated for the budget transfer, Cuyahoga County sends more cases from juvenile court to adult court, known as juvenile bindovers, than the next four counties in Ohio combined.

The county’s public defender, Cullen Sweeney, told council at an earlier budget hearing that his office has been able to keep 90% of cases in juvenile court when it’s up to a judge’s discretion.

During Monday’s meeting, Pastor Napoleon Harris from GCC advocated to keep the money in the public defender’s budget.

“I'm asking you, what is it that you are tied to? Your vote is your voice,” said Harris. “What constrains you? Will you choose to be bonded, as I am, to serve the most vulnerable? To serve democracy? To serve justice? Or will you make a different choice?”

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

Several councilmembers, while voting to move the funds back to juvenile court, expressed an interest in exploring the issue further.

The chairperson of the safety committee, Michael Gallagher said Monday he’d invite everyone with a role in the justice system to those hearings.

“I think we all are in agreement to move forward, with the court as the lead,” Gallagher said. “I would like the prosecutor, the public defender, I would like advocates of those that are the victims. I want everybody involved so we get a full view of what we're dealing with.”

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