Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice Change Efforts: Findings From Our Senior Criminal Justice Fellow’s Report

A black and white photo shows a group of protestors with one holding a "justice now" sign
Photo Credit: Isaiah Rustad

During the COVID-19 pandemic and after the untimely murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Cleveland Foundation responded to our nation’s largest civil rights movement since the 1960s by creating the Cleveland Black Futures Fund as well as a Senior Criminal Justice Fellowship. The fund was initially endowed with $2.5 million to invest in and strengthen Black-led and Black-serving social change organizations, while the fellowship was created to reexamine the foundation’s efforts around the criminal legal system to create a more intentional and equitable approach.

Katrice Williams, who was ultimately selected for the senior criminal justice fellow position, sought to create the foundation’s first criminal justice grantmaking strategy. Williams began by building relationships with community and systems stakeholders and conducting a criminal justice landscape analysis for the purpose of supporting change initiatives that align with the foundation’s values, mission and vision. The landscape analysis involved interviewing and surveying over 100 stakeholders who were community grassroots organizers and advocates, social service providers, researchers, law enforcement and government officials.

These stakeholders identified a divergent set of issues within the criminal justice system, including bail reform, public access to criminal justice data, supports for individuals experiencing a mental or behavioral health crisis, and juvenile incarceration, as well as barriers and opportunities to changing them. This information has been captured in the foundation’s summer 2022 report, “Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice Change Efforts.”

While the report uncovered many common issues, it highlighted a lesser-known problem to the community: a lack of financial parity and data systems integration between the county’s suburban municipal courts and the Court of Common Pleas, both of which are important for ensuring racially equitable outcomes in our criminal justice system. [1]

Separate data and unequal funding: two connected challenges

Each Ohio court, whether it is a court of common pleas, municipal or mayor’s court, maintains its own data system because of “home rule.” These separate systems can make it difficult for different courts and jurisdictions to share data.  And when it comes to funding, only the Court of Common Pleas receives substantial state funding, while the smaller municipal courts, which only adjudicate misdemeanor crimes, are forced to rely predominantly on their municipal city budgets. The disparity in funding means that individuals accused of misdemeanor crimes in the suburban municipal courts have disparate access to court-funded diversion, drug treatment, mental health programs, legal counsel and social services, depending on the size of and funding available to the local municipal court.

Funding affects data systems integration because the data system that the Court of Common Pleas uses is not affordable for every municipal court, making it hard to see each criminal defendant’s history, including judges’ sentencing orders, referral for diversion programs and prior success with court-ordered drug treatment, counseling and mental health programs. Data is also important for ensuring racially equitable outcomes in sentencing. Publicly transparent and available sentencing data can show whether two similarly situated individuals, both of whom have been charged with the same or similar crimes and have similar criminal histories, among other factors, have been treated fairly, irrespective of their race, gender, gender identity, or income. Fairness is important for ensuring defendants receive equitable treatment in the receipt of plea deals, legal representation, and, if they are found guilty, sentencing.

The prison population: what we know, what we don’t, and why it matters

Looking at statewide data as of 2021, a few statistics stand out:

  • Ohio incarcerated 42,963 people, 42.8% of whom were Black men, compared to 43% of white men.
  • The racial disparity is reversed for women. White women account for 74% of the female prison population, compared to 23% of Black women. Still, Black women, and women generally, are overrepresented in the prison system because they are more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than their male counterparts.
  • Despite being only the second most populous county in the state, Cuyahoga County had the worst prison incarceration rate, accounting for 14.97% of all state prison commitments. Franklin County, the most populous county in the state, accounts for 10.45% of all prison commitments.

While state incarceration data is readily available because the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction reports its prison commitments annually, including the race, gender and type of conviction, this is not the case for each county, including county courts of common pleas, municipal courts, local law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices. It is difficult to know if Black residents are arrested more frequently, recommended for diversion, offered equivalent plea bargains, receive the same bail amounts for similar crimes, and have access to competent legal counsel and fair sentencing as their white and Latino/a/x counterparts. Why? Because the data is not publicly available.

The “Cuyahoga County Criminal Justice Change Efforts” report highlights why data transparency is difficult and identifies potential opportunities for overcoming it, as viewed from the perspectives of numerous stakeholders. To learn more, take a deeper dive into the report here. And stay tuned for more news from the Cleveland Foundation about criminal justice reform.

[1] Section 3 of Article XVIII of the Ohio Constitution permits each municipality, through home rule, to exercise all powers of local government and, in the case of their local court systems, maintain their own data systems, irrespective of whether the information maintained in those systems can be easily shared with other courts and jurisdictions (Gridley and Hardesty, 2020).