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Candidate Matthew Ahn wants to transform the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office

Man speaks to group of people in a cold parking lot.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Matthew Ahn, candidate for Cuyahoga County prosecutor, speaks to potential voters on a cold November evening.

Matthew Ahn is not nibbling at the edges when he discusses the ways he'd like to change how the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office operates.

Ahn is running against two-term incumbent Michael O’Malley in the March 19 Democratic primary for Cuyahoga County prosecutor. Ahn and O’Malley are scheduled to appear at a candidates’ forum Tuesday night.

Since August, Ahn has appeared at a total of 252 public events, making his pitch to Democratic party clubs and potential voters. O’Malley hasn’t been turning up at nearly as many of these meetings this season, so Tuesday's public forum will be one of the few chances voters will get to hear their pitches side-by-side.

In September, Ahn told West Side activists from the left-leaning women’s group GrassRoots Resistance that, as prosecutor, he would move away from several of O’Malley’s policies.

“We've seen an approach that tries to just treat each case on paper as somebody to punish,” Ahn told a group of a few dozen attendees in the basement of P.J. McIntyre’s Pub in Cleveland. “And look at where we've gotten. We have a youth crime spike that we're trying to deal with, and I think that is a direct result of the sort of small thinking that we've been seeing out of the prosecutor's office.”

Ahn has been critical of the way O’Malley’s office handles juvenile cases.

Staffing juvenile cases with new prosecutors who work that court as a kind of training ground, before moving on to adult cases, incentivizes attorneys to focus on convictions rather than addressing recidivism and helping children in crisis, Ahn said during a November stop on Cleveland’s East Side at an event organized by the Concerned Citizens Community Council, a neighborhood group.

“We hear stories of, ‘Hey, this is this kid's seventh juvenile case,’” Ahn said. “What happened in cases one-through-six that they are still coming back? And, right now, we have a juvenile unit that is not structured to answer that question.”

Cuyahoga County sends more juveniles to adult court than any other county in Ohio by a large margin, according to the activist group Greater Cleveland Congregations.

Ahn believes, with changes in the prosecutor’s office, cases will be less likely to reach that point.

“Actually have permanent attorneys in that unit who build up an expertise, actually make sure that we're prioritizing early intervention,” Ahn said. “Because what that does is that becomes rehabilitation and rehabilitation becomes crime prevention.”

Ahn is not new to county politics. He grew up in North Royalton and is a visiting professor at Cleveland State University’s law school.

He’s an active member of the county Democratic party and campaigned last year against building a new county jail as large as the one being proposed. Before coming to CSU, he was a federal public defender in northern Ohio and said that background convinced him of how damaging even a short stay in jail can be.

“What's happened in our county jail is that we have some folks in the jail who cannot afford a cash bail amount of less than $1,000,” Ahn said. “Meanwhile, folks who are committing very serious crimes, violent crimes potentially all the way up to murder, they're still getting a cash bail amount. And if they're wealthy, they're still able to pay their way out.”

One solution, said Ahn, is to request those cash bail amounts at arraignment less often and use electronic monitoring instead.

Low bail amounts are usually attached to nonviolent crimes, what Ahn referred to as “crimes of desperation.” Things like theft or drug use.

Ahn told members of the Fairview Park Democratic Club in October he wants the office to file fewer of those charges than under O’Malley and more of another category of crime, what he calls “crimes of power.”

That, he said, would represent a change to the charges the prosecutor’s office focuses on.

“Things like abuses of public office, wage theft, environmental crimes and so forth,” Ahn said, “we want to prioritize violent crimes and sex crimes and human trafficking. But there is this sort of second tier of other crimes of power that I think we can also use the power of the office on.”

In addition to changes in the cash bail system, the crimes targeted by the prosecutor’s office and reforms in the juvenile division, Ahn pitched two other reforms during his campaign stops.

Ahn would also no longer retry cases after a conviction is overturned by an appeals court and said in a campaign video he would never seek the death penalty.

Ahn has criticized the prosecutor's office for the number of death penalty sentences it's pursued. Cuyahoga County is tied with Riverside County, California for the most death sentences issued between 2018 and 2021, according to The Death Penalty Information Center.

“This all leads me to believe that there is a crisis of leadership at the top of the prosecutor's office,” Ahn said. “We have an elected official who ignores and rejects the evidence and research in terms of how to keep us safe. Someone who tries to pit law enforcement against our judges in the media. And somebody who is blaming everybody but himself for the rise in crime that has happened under his watch.”

Corrected: December 5, 2023 at 9:01 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated where Matthew Ahn was a federal public defender. It was in northern Ohio, not New York City.
Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.