Cuyahoga County Officials, Judges Divided Over Justice Reform

The county jail and courtrooms are found in Cuyahoga County's Justice Center in downtown Cleveland.
The county jail and courtrooms are found in Cuyahoga County's Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
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by Nick Castele

Top Cuyahoga County officials this year said defendants are spending too long locked up in jail while awaiting trial. They’ve proposed giving judges more information about defendants and speeding up cases.

But some efforts to change the system have been met with resistance from judges. And as the year ends, it’s not certain who will make the next move.

‘Where’s the fairness in that?’

Two days before Christmas in Cleveland Municipal Court, about 10 people are sitting along courtroom benches listening to public defender Jim London.

“A not guilty plea goes on the record for you today,” London says, giving the defendants an overview of their legal rights.

They’ve been arrested in the days or hours before, and this is likely their first chance to talk with an attorney about their case.

When Judge Ronald Adrine enters the courtroom, defendant after defendant is called up.

“I need a signature and a date where the Xs are marked,” Adrine says as a court staff member stamps paperwork.

Between the judge and the public defender, there are just a few questions asked. Do you have a job? A place to stay? Past convictions?

The judge asks the prosecutor to weigh in.

“Mr. Murphy?” Adrine says, addressing the prosecutor. “Anything that you want to add as it relates to bond hearing?”

Then it’s time for Adrine to set bond.

In an interview, Adrine says he tries to make the best decisions he can, giving higher bonds to people who might commit another offense.

“Then I’m called upon to make a decision about whether or not that person should be released, or whether they should be detained,” he says. “That’s really not enough information to do that intelligently.”

He says the system can penalize a defendant who doesn’t pose a risk, but is poor.

“Somebody who doesn’t have a pot nor a window, gets arrested on something simple,” he says. “Bond’s set at $500. He couldn’t make a $5 bond. But now he sits in jail for a day, or two, or three, depending on when his arrest took place. Waiting to see one of us. He’s not dangerous. Where’s the fairness in that?”

Many people who have an initial appearance on felony charges in municipal courts like Adrine’s then must wait for an indictment from a county grand jury. And after that, they go before a county judge to enter a plea, and bond is set again.

In recent years, defendants who can’t post bond have spent about 30 days in jail from arrest to county court arraignment, according to data compiled by the common pleas court.

County executive’s proposed reforms

Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish has a proposal to change the process. He wants attorneys assigned sooner and the courts to gather more information about defendants when they’re arrested—such as mental health or addiction history. Budish says if municipal judges know more about defendants, they can better evaluate who poses a risk when setting bond.

“This is not an effort to set lower bonds,” Budish says. “It’s not an effort to release prisoners. It’s an effort to give the judges the information at an early stage that they need to make an appropriate decision. It’s still the judge’s decision.”

Defendants already are spending about half as much time in jail waiting for an indictment than they were nine or 10 years ago. And there are special fast-track dockets set up for people charged with lesser felonies.

But Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty says the system could move faster.

“The sooner we move a case through the system expeditiously and fairly, the less time the police, the prosecutors and the courts have to spend on that case,” McGinty says. “The less cost it is. The less likely he is to reoffend, that individual.”

Judges respond

Some judges are wary of these new proposals, believing that county officials are trying to force change on the courts.

In a letter last month, Administrative and Presiding Judge John Russo and other judges backed out of a justice reform panel that included the prosecutor and the county executive.

Now, Russo has formed a new group—one made up of judges. 

“We will supervise, we will look at, we will make determinations,” Russo says. “We will bring in any partner who wants to sit and talk about it. But it will be looked from the top down. It will be the judicial branch who will make those determinations.”

Russo says he’s not yet convinced the jails are full of people who shouldn’t be there. He wants more study before making changes to the system.

In a written statement, the county executive says, “Whatever the forum, we expect these critical conversations to continue.”

But for now, it’s not clear what will be changed about the system—or how. 

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