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Government & Politics

Greater Cleveland Congregations presses county candidates for fewer juveniles in adult jail

Children's Law Center
Graph shows the increase in juveniles send to adult jail by Cuyahoga County since 2016.

The advocacy group Greater Cleveland Congregations has started a campaign to reduce the number of juveniles sent to adult court in Cuyahoga County.

At a forum Thursday night with candidates for juvenile court judge and county executive, Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Pastor Jawanza Colvin told the hundreds of members in attendance at Olivet and online they would press elected officials for reforms.

“We will not let the wheels of democracy and bureaucracy roll on as if nothing is wrong. Nothing is amiss. No moral oversight. No moral blind spot. As if a correction is not needed,” Colvin said.

Since 2016, Cuyahoga County has sharply increased the use of juvenile bind over, the practice of sending kids as young as 14 years old to adult court and jail. According to numbers compiled by the Children’s Law Center, 192 juveniles were bound over to the adult system in Ohio in 2020. More than 78 of those bind overs occurred in Cuyahoga County, more than the next four counties combined.

“No more trying children as young as 14 years old as adults, putting them in adult prison. Shame,” Pastor John Lentz from Forest Hill Presbyterian Church said. “We demand intervention, diversion and trauma-informed care for youth in the juvenile justice system.”

The four candidates for judge and three county executive candidates in attendance all agreed that the practice is a problem. But several stressed the need for a change to state law to address the issue.

One of the candidates for juvenile court judge, Retanio Rucker, said as a juvenile court magistrate, he requires prosecutors to provide more evidence than is required before sending a juvenile to adult court.

“We can only do so much,” Rucker said. “If you want direct changes, then you need to go to the general assembly down in Columbus, Ohio.”

There are two types of bind over: mandatory and discretionary. Anyone 16 or older and charged with murder or attempted murder has to be sent to adult court. Anyone 14 or older who’s been to juvenile detention for certain violent crimes before and is charged with murder or attempted murder also has to be sent to adult court.

The discretionary options in state law allow judges to send anyone older than 14 charged with a felony to adult court if the child is considered beyond help from the juvenile system.

The judges at Thursday’s forum were noncommittal about how they would change the use of discretionary bind over.

“We do have a big role that we play as judges on those, using our discretionary, and I do intend to use my discretion,” said Tracy Martin Peebles, currently a magistrate with Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. “Not just looking at the severity of the allegation, but looking at the child.”

The three candidates for Cuyahoga County executive also agreed that fewer bind overs would be preferable. But the county has little control over judicial policy beyond setting the budget for the adult and juvenile courts.

Democratic candidate Chris Ronayne said the law requiring bind over in some cases has to be changed.

“I will advocate downstate with every judge, I will be with you in Columbus,” Ronayne said.

Republican candidate Lee Weingart agreed it’s a problem but didn’t say there was a way to fix it.

“I will have a variety of committees put together to look at justice issues across the board, starting with bind over,” Weingart said.

The third candidate, Democrat Tariq Shabazz, said he’d focus on the underlying issues leading to incarceration.