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Cleveland Pretrial Services Program Gets Defendants Out Of Jail, Into Court

Activists for bail reform and improved jail conditions protest outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. [Gabriel Kramer / ideastream]
Activists for bail reform and improved jail conditions protest outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center.

Misdemeanor defendants in Cleveland are missing court dates less often under a year-old program that allows people to await trial under supervision outside of jail.

Cleveland Municipal Court released statistics on the first year of its pretrial services program at Tuesday’s meeting of the  Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice Council, which brings together city, county and court officials to discuss bail reform and other topics.

The rate at which defendants miss court dates was cut in half, according to statistics released by the court. The failure-to-appear rate fell from 42 percent before the start of the pretrial services program to 19 percent after, according to the court.

“You think that some people don’t come to court because they don’t want to come to court, but that’s not necessarily the case,” Judge Michelle Earley, the presiding and administrative judge of Cleveland’s court system, told ideastream. “If you see the reduction in the failure-to-appear rate, people just forget, or there’s other things going on.”

In the past year, 8 percent of defendants in the program committed a new offense, and warrants were issued for 9 percent for non-compliance with the terms of release.

“We have not arrived in bond reform,” Earley said. “We have a lot of reform to go.”

Cleveland launched its pretrial services program Sept. 24, 2018, contracting with the nonprofit Oriana House to remind defendants of court dates and monitor them while they await trial. Of the 1,144 defendants who participated in the program in the past year, nearly three quarters wore GPS monitors.

Activists have packed recent justice council meetings – Tuesday’s was no exception – demanding improvements in jail conditions and the release of nonviolent defendants who can’t afford to make bail. They’ve pushed for the courts to adopt a  package of bail reform proposals based in part on a March 2018 task force report, including bail reform and better systems to ensure notification of court appearances.

“It’s time to stop tinkering with the edges and make systematic change,” activist Laurie Albright told council members.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court is working on its own pilot program for pretrial services, in collaboration with the city municipal court, Deputy Court Administrator Andrea Kinast said. The program would be available for common pleas defendants whose cases originate in Cleveland.

New Specialized Court Dockets

This week, the common pleas court announced it is launching a special docket for defendants facing serious felony domestic violence charges. The county received a $1 million, three-year grant from the U.S. Justice Department for the program.

“There are so many more cases that may not garner the public’s attention that we see on a regular basis, and those are the ones that we have to give this specialized attention to,” Judge Sherrie Miday, who will oversee the docket, said Tuesday.

The courts will refer 50 cases a year to the new docket. Last year, the common pleas court saw 1,152 domestic violence cases. 

The common pleas court also plans to create a new docket for defendants with a record of higher-level felony drug charges who are ineligible for the county’s current drug court programs, said Administrative and Presiding Judge John Russo.

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.