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Greater Cleveland Congregations campaign on juvenile justice reforms hits roadblock at council

GCC members
Matthew Richmond
Ideastream Public Media
Pastor Jawanza Colvin of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church with members of Greater Cleveland Congregations during a press conference on Nov. 9, 2023.

A proposal to move $650,000 from the juvenile court budget into the public defender’s budget appears headed for the cutting room floor as county council considers amendments to Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne’s budget.

The Greater Cleveland Congregations, a countywide religious organization, originally brought the idea for the budget transfer to Ronayne, as part of a campaign to change the way the county handles cases where a juvenile faces transfer to adult court — known as “juvenile bindovers.” The GCC is proposing those juveniles be represented by the public defender’s office rather than assigned counsel — private attorneys appointed by a judge and paid by the court when a defendant can’t afford their own lawyer.

Under Ronayne's proposed budget, the money would be taken out of the approximately $3 million annually earmarked in the juvenile court budget to pay for assigned counsel.

At a November 2 budget hearing in county council, Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Thomas O’Malley asked for the money to be returned to the court's budget.

During the hearing, council members focused on the steps Ronayne's office took before submitting the budget with the change.

“Did you have direct discussions with the executive as to why the [$650,000] was removed?” Councilmember Scott Tuma asked O’Malley.

“I asked him last night on the telephone if he knew that the 650 had been removed and he said, ‘yes,’ but I didn’t really get an explanation,” O’Malley said.

He added later that Office of Budget and Management Director Walter Parfejewiec told him the money was transferred because of a belief that the public defender’s office provides better representation.

Councilmember Martin Sweeney asked O’Malley his opinion of the work of assigned counsel.

“Having been on the assigned counsel list for 20 years, I think it’s insulting to the practicing bar,” said O’Malley.

The juvenile court’s website includes the rates and an application for assigned counsel. Attorneys receive $1,700 for discretionary bindover hearings, the same amount as for a misdemeanor case, and $750 for mandatory bindovers.

In discretionary bindover cases the court must determine whether a juvenile's case should be transferred to adult court. When a case is subject to a mandatory bindover, the court determines the situation meets certain criteria that requires the case be moved to adult court.

Public Defender Cullen Sweeney, whose office started a pilot project known as “vertical defense,” told council his office has had success keeping juvenile bindovers from moving to adult court.

In some cases, the office assigns an attorney, social worker and investigator to provide more context on the child’s life before a judge decides whether to send the case to adult court. Then, if the bindover occurs, another attorney will continue with that defendant in adult court.

Sweeney told council at the November 2 budget hearing that they’ve been able to keep almost 90% of the youths facing discretionary bindover — cases where the defendant is not automatically sent to adult court — in juvenile court. During that meeting, Sweeney asked council for funding to expand the program separate from the $650,000 increase.

In mandatory bindover cases, where the crime requires transfer to adult court, the public defender's office still has been able to keep almost 40% in juvenile court, according to Sweeney.

Sweeney said if the proposed change is approved he wouldn't use the $650,000 added to his budget to hire more attorneys unless the juvenile court judges agreed to send the cases to his office.

“The judges, it’s up to them,” said Sweeney. “They may ultimately decide to keep it the way it is and if that’s the case we don’t need to go to the county executive or county council to ask for more money,” he said.

District 5 Councilmember Michael Gallagher said he’d never seen money moved out of the court budget without a discussion with court officials.

“We’re in new territory again here,” said Gallagher. “We’re going to have to look into this. This is an anomaly and not a good anomaly.”

The county is required under state law to provide enough funding for juvenile court operations, and this is not the first time the juvenile court and county executive have disagreed over the budget.

Members of the Greater Cleveland Congregations say they've been working on their campaign for the budget transfer to the public defender’s office for some time.

“Over the past ten months, we have sought the best way to reduce youth bindovers in our community,” said Rev. Ryan Wallace. “This is the people's budget, and we will make our voices heard about how we want our money spent.”

Wallace said they had met with the O’Malley from juvenile court and were told the public defender’s office doesn’t have the capacity to take more cases. That led them to advocate for the budget transfer.

He also pushed back against a claim made previously by O’Malley that there were too many conflicts of interest to send all bindover cases to the public defender. In cases where there are multiple defendants, attorneys from the public defender’s office can’t take on more than one defendant.

“Look, we’ve done our homework,” Wallace said. “We know that in other counties around Ohio, where they give 100% of the cases to the public defenders on paper, it ends up being something like three-quarters of the cases go to the public defender's office.”

According to Public Defender Sweeney, his office had separately asked the juvenile court for a larger share of the bindover cases in 2022. The judges agreed to send about 40% of the cases to his office, with the rest remaining with assigned counsel.

Members of Greater Cleveland Congregations were back at county council this week, as councilmembers finished budget hearings.

Wallace told councilmembers about meeting with one 15-year-old who was boundover and sentenced to 21 years in adult prison for a series of carjackings.

He recounted asking the boy about whether there was anything he’d like to share with the public. The first was that he was sorry for what he did and second was that he had lost the people who mentored him and helped keep him out of trouble shortly before committing his crimes.

“This boy made mistakes and no doubt he should face consequences, but the goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation and not punishment,” Wallace said. “Instead, he was sentenced to 21 years in adult prison, a wildly inappropriate sentence for a 15-year-old child.”

Some council members seemed more concerned about the specifics of the particular case than the larger question GCC was raising — whether or not more should be done to keep juveniles like him out of adult prison.

Later in the meeting, Councilmember Mike Gallagher asked for the name of the boy. Wallace declined to give it.

“This 15-year-old got 21 years for a carjacking?” Gallagher asked.

“I’m not comfortable sharing his name,” Wallace said.

“Well, he’s a convicted felon,” Gallagher said.

“Yeah, I understand,” said Wallace.

“I was in the courts for 30 years, I’m telling you. There’s more here. This is sworn testimony you’re providing. What’s his name? I mean, I’ll get it.” Gallagher said. “I take that as the reason why there was a backdoor maneuver here. I didn’t know. Now I know.”

After Wallace refused to provide the name, Gallagher appeared to receive details on his phone about the case and read them off — he named the juvenile and read off the details — five carjackings in the Little Italy neighborhood, including one woman who was shot. The attempted murder charge was dropped as part of a plea deal.

“If you’re going to testify in front of this body, testify honestly,” Gallagher said.

It’s not clear what was dishonest about Wallace’s testimony.

County council is scheduled to vote next week on whether to move the money back into the juvenile court budget.

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