Candidates for Cuyahoga prosecutor clash over juvenile justice and experience
The two Democratic candidates for Cuyahoga County prosecutor offered very different visions for the priorities of the office during a debate Tuesday night in Cleveland Heights that attracted a standing-room-only crowd.
In his opening statement, the challenger, Cleveland State University law professor Matthew Ahn, went right at County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley.
Ahn said O’Malley’s office followed policies that are out-of-step with the Democratic party and aren’t based in the research on what works to reduce violent crime and then blamed others when crime goes up.
“Folks, this is not the behavior of a strong leader. It is instead a crisis of leadership at the top of the prosecutor’s office,” Ahn said.
In his opening, O’Malley defended his handling of what he called the hardest job in the county and went after Ahn for lobbing criticisms without understanding the office.
“Not one case has he handled. Not one victim has he sat down with. Not one neighborhood meeting has he gone to,” O’Malley said. “Not one police agency has he actually sat down with and said, ‘How do we prevent what’s going on here?’”
Ahn’s background is as a public defender. He has never worked for a prosecutor’s office. In his campaign, Ahn is focusing on policies in O’Malley’s office, like sending juveniles to adult court, that Ahn says don’t make the county safer.
Instead, Ahn argued for different thinking after a juvenile commits a serious crime.
“What is best for them,” Ahn asked, “in terms of making sure that we understand that they need to be able to reintegrate and lead productive lives.”
O’Malley stressed that prosecutors work on behalf of victims.
“And to seek justice, because in Matt’s version of justice, you never hear the word ‘justice’ correlated to a victim,” O’Malley said. “I gotta be honest, I am not the public defender.”
The debate, organized by Cleveland Heights Democrats, included a public question and answer session. O’Malley took one more shot at Ahn’s criticism of the office’s practice of sending juveniles to adult court during the Q&A.
After Christine Russo, whose son’s 17-year-old girlfriend killed him and his friend by crashing her car into a building at 100-miles-an-hour, asked a question about the prosecutor’s responsibility to include victims’ wishes in their work, O’Malley, who had the case moved to adult court, seized the opportunity.
“And I know what her position was on that case – it was that she wanted the individual who murdered her son and murdered her son’s friend to be held accountable,” O’Malley said.
Ahn argued that the prosecutor’s office has another, underused option besides sending a kid who commits a serious crime to adult court – what’s known as a serious youthful offender designation - so they would not automatically be released when they reach 21.
O’Malley was first elected in 2016, in part because of a backlash against his predecessor Timothy McGinty’s handling of the investigation into the 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police.
At that time, O’Malley made a pledge to turn over all police use of deadly force cases to the attorney general’s office, to avoid a conflict of interest because prosecutors and police work together closely. He stood by that policy, despite criticism that it deflects responsibility away from a local, elected official.
Ahn proposed setting up a public integrity unit that could potentially handle all police misconduct cases.
“These are just examples of cases that I think the community has lost trust in the system to handle,” Ahn said. “What we need, in many ways, is a fresh start.”
The public integrity unit would only handle cases of public corruption or police misconduct and would be, according to Ahn, walled off from the rest of the office.
O’Malley pointed to the 18 East Cleveland officers he’s brought cases against in the past two years as an example of his ability to prosecute officer misconduct.
O’Malley and Ahn are both seeking the county party’s endorsement in early January and voters will decide in the Democratic primary in March.