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Government & Politics

Cuyahoga County To Hire Corrections Expert In Jail Lawsuit

Updated: 9:32 a.m., Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Cuyahoga County will hire a corrections expert to examine county jail conditions in what could be a step toward settling a lawsuit brought by inmates.

County council on Tuesday approved the hiring of Martin Horn, a professor emeritus at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. Horn also served as commissioner of New York City’s jail system and probation department under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Horn will work as a joint subject matter expert for both the plaintiffs and the county. Cuyahoga County will pay him $90,000 to inspect the jail, review documents and prepare reports, according to the legislation. His contract lasts until July 2021.

Sarah Gelsomino, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said she hopes Horn will recommend ways to fix problems in the jail laid out by the lawsuit.

“We’ve been able to work with the county to come to this place,” she said, “and hopefully we’ll be able to resolve many of the issues through this process.”

Civil rights attorneys announced the lawsuit in December 2018, just after the release of a  U.S. Marshals Service report calling conditions inside the jail “inhumane.” 

The plaintiffs, who are seeking class-action recognition for people detained in the county jail, asked a federal judge to order improvements to sanitation, overcrowding, medical care and mental health treatment.

The county slashed the number of people in the jail as a precaution against the coronavirus. But the lawsuit’s claims about overcrowding and understaffing will remain relevant as the jail population rises again, Gelsomino said.

“That may look a little different currently,” she said, “But we certainly will be able to evaluate what the problem was and whether that problem continues and make sure that the county can implement some changes so that that doesn’t happen again.”

It wouldn’t be the Cuyahoga County jail’s first consent decree.  In 1975, a federal judge ordered limits on the jail population and required psychiatric care. A subsequent consent decree,  which lasted from 1987 to 1994, led to the expansion of the jail complex at the Justice Center to reduce overcrowding.

Hiring experts is a common step in lawsuits against jails and prisons, according to Michael Benza, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

“Much like the monitors in the Cleveland police department lawsuit, you have these independent monitors, you’ll oftentimes bring in, in prison cases, a prison expert to work on structural, procedural and other types of changes to make the prison a better place,” he said.

Although the county is not hiring Horn to act as a consent decree monitor, his work could help the parties reach agreements on reforms.

Council also gave the county the go-ahead to enter a “structured negotiation agreement” with the plaintiffs. That could be a prelude to a settlement aimed at avoiding future litigation, giving parties a framework for coming to a deal, Benza said.

“As opposed to sort of a free-flowing negotiation where you’re bouncing from issue to issue and topic to topic,” he said, “you sort of sit down with a checklist and you go point by point.”

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