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Cuyahoga County scraps plan for new jail, will wait for a new county executive to move ahead

The now-rejected site for the new jail was on privately owned land close to Downtown Cleveland and, unlike a nearby site that the county considered, has the support of the local city councilman. [ Google Maps]
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The now-rejected site for the new jail was on privately owned land close to Downtown Cleveland and, unlike a nearby site that the county considered, has the support of the local city councilman.

Cuyahoga County Council will not vote on whether to purchase land near Downtown Cleveland for a new jail or extending a quarter percent sales tax to pay for the new jail, until at least after a new county executive is elected in November.

The decision comes a week after the group of county and Cleveland officials tasked with planning for a new jail and courthouse, the Justice Center Executive Steering Committee, voted 6-5 against the county’s proposed site for the jail.

Both candidates for county executive, Chris Ronayne and Lee Weingart, have said they will restart the site selection process even if council goes ahead with the land purchase.

But until a new executive takes office, county council and current executive, Armond Budish, hold ultimate authority over the project. At their meeting Tuesday, members were split on whether delay was the right decision.

Some cited concerns about the size of the new jail, the estimated cost of $750 million, close to $2 billion after interest on debt payments are factored in, and contamination at the proposed site as reasons to delay.

“I insist on progress and will only vote for a new jail that is smaller than the current one,” said Councilman Dale Miller. “The steering committee vote forces us to take a step back on site selection. The next executive must be part of the discussion.”

According to daily population counts provided by the county, there’s between 1650 and 1700 people being held at the jail most days. The current plan developed by the consultants and approved by the steering committee calls for space for an average population of anywhere between 1600 and 1900 people.

Several councilmembers responded to public commenters who called on the county to invest more in alternatives to incarceration, instead of building the jail.

“We will always have to have some form of incarceration but we should minimize how many people we have to incarcerate,” said Councilmember Cheryl Stephens. “That can only be done with the help of our elected officials, who are judges and prosecutors and the public defenders. We must have their allegiance and commitment to change.”

The county has opened a central booking area in the current jail, intended to speed up the processing and potential release of new arrests, but the effects on jail population are not clear yet. The county’s diversion center has been open for more than a year. Those measures have not yet had a meaningful impact on jail population.

Other councilmembers said the county should still move forward and criticized some members of the steering committee for politicizing the process.

“We had all that was required two years ago to make this necessary decision, people,” said Councilman Michael Gallagher “In hindsight it was foolish to let the court, the prosecutor, the public defender and everybody else that was on that committee
to be on that committee.”

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, Administrative Judge Brendan Sheehan and Public Defender Cullen Sweeney have all expressed skepticism about the jail in recent months. They pressed for a new environmental study of the proposed site. The court and prosecutor’s office also paid for a new report on what would be needed to renovate the current jail.

In both cases, the new reports confirmed information already presented to the steering committee – that the proposed site is contaminated but could be remediated and renovating the existing jail would not be practical.

Gallagher was very critical of the concerns raised by O’Malley, Sheehan and Sweeney during Tuesday’s meeting. He did not go into details but hinted at upcoming hearings in council and compared the derailing of the jail planning process to the county government scandal that led to the creation of the current county council.

“This new form of government was formed over a very dark moment in Cuyahoga County history,” said Gallagher after threatening to question members of the steering committee under oath. “While I don’t believe it was criminal, it certainly to me approached an ethical line.”

Ultimately, county council decided to stop the planning process. Council President Pernel Jones cited the opposition of both county executive candidates as a deciding factor.

“While I strongly believe that further delay is a mistake, it is their mistake to make,” Jones said. “I urge the next county executive to swiftly identify a plan and a funding source for addressing the critical needs at the county jail. Council will be ready to work in good faith to consider your proposal.”

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