Cuyahoga County Gun Court Seeks New Ways To Stop Gun Violence

Antonio McMullen and Levi King
Antonio McMullen (left), from the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance, with Levi King at the Peacemakers' office in Slavic Village. As part of the violence intervention program in Cuyahoga Count Common Pleas Court, "gun court" participants are mentored by Peacemaker volunteers. [Matthew Richmond / Ideastream Public Media]
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Officially, the new docket in Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan’s Cuyahoga County courtroom is called the violence intervention program. Unofficially, it’s the gun docket.

Sheehan got into the details of their lives with several of the program’s participants during recent hearings, asking each: Where are they working? Are they getting their high school diploma? Have they pursued trauma counseling with MetroHealth System?

“Listen, 90 percent of success in life is showing up,” Sheehan said to one participant. “Just keep showing up and following through with everything they’re telling you to do, all right? And how is Ohio Means Jobs treating you?”

The Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas has the first specialized docket in Ohio for gun possession charges.

It started small in 2019, accepting a handful of people arrested for illegal gun possession charges. Now it’s expanding, thanks to a $750,000, three-year federal grant.

The issue being tackled is a massive one in Cleveland. So far this year, shootings are up 43 percent compared to 2020, homicides with a gun are up 38 percent and almost 1,600 guns have been seized by Cleveland police.

Gun court works like other specialized courts, with participants going through an intensive probation and monitoring period instead of prison time. If they’re successful in the program, the charge is removed from their record.

But unlike drug courts’ focus on seeking an end to drug use, gun court isn’t necessarily trying to get participants to stop carrying a gun.

“I got tired,” Sheehan said during an interview. “I got tired every day, coming into court, seeing a young man, young woman, with a gun.”

Sheehan said he heard the same story about why they needed to carry one over and over again.

“‘I needed it for protection. I needed a gun because I got shot at. My mother was murdered with a gun. I needed a gun. People are after me,’” Sheehan said. “I mean, you hear these stories day in and day out. A lot of these folks plead to crimes that they had to go to prison for.”

According to Sheehan, the program’s goal is to keep people who feel the need to be armed from turning to violence.

Levi King is one of those people. He’s 23 now; two years ago he was caught carrying a gun without a concealed carry permit.

So King entered the program, first by pleading guilty to the gun charge. He figured going through the violence intervention program would be the only way to keep it off his record – and be able to legally carry a gun afterward.

“Everybody got a gun,” Kind said, describing his neighborhood. “Nowadays, if you ain’t got a gun, you stand out. They not going to take you serious.”

According to King, violence in his Cleveland neighborhood has gotten so bad, there’s a feeling the next threat could be coming from anywhere.

“Pull up, walk up, crawl up, pop up from under the porch,” King said. “You never know. When you got a gun it makes you feel more protected, you know, like you can handle yourself for real, for real.”

But those concerns don’t hold much water for a criminal justice system that expected him to stay away from guns while he had an open case and during probation.

King tried early on to explain to court officials that he needed to carry a gun for protection.

“They just looked at me as any normal Black guy in the ‘hood. They used to that,” he said. “Basically, you have to move, if I feel uncomfortable like that. But it’s not like I’m financially stable to do all that, up and move.”

The violence intervention program approaches King’s dilemma a bit differently from traditional probation proceedings. He was assigned a mentor from the anti-violence group Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance. Together, they focused on the other decisions King was making, like who he associated with and how much time he spent in the streets. His mentor helped him get a job as a roofer.

King completed the program in two years. He has no criminal record. He’s since gotten a concealed carry permit, something he never would have been eligible for with that felony on his record.

King said he deserves the second chance.

“Everything ain’t what it seem like, you know? I got it just in case,” King said. “It’s like seeing somebody with a pocket knife on his hip, thinking, ‘Oh, he’s gonna poke somebody up.’ You don’t know what he’s got it for. He might use it as a utility knife.”

The Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance follows a harm reduction model in its work with gun court participants. Executive Director Myesha Crowe appreciates working with the gun court because it puts a system of support around young people caught with guns so they have a chance to learn the lessons King did.

There are two issues at the root of so much gun violence, Crowe said: it’s too easy to get a gun in Cleveland and too often young people are getting one for status

“And I think that the issue is, there’s no education about what a firearm is for, that it’s not for status, that it’s not for pictures, that it’s not to show your friends,” Crowe said. “It’s to protect yourself.”

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