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Rehab, Not Jail, Under Proposed Cuyahoga County Domestic Violence Docket

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court will pilot a four-year program to rehabilitate domestic violence offenders if its application for a $1 million federal grant is successful. 

Like the court's other specialized dockets, including those for veterans who commit criminal offenses and drug offenders, the focus will be on rehabilitation, said Judge John J. Russo, who presides over the Cuyahoga Common Pleas Court and oversaw the county's grant application.

"The goal in any specialty docket is to rehabilitate [people] to be productive in society rather than sending them to incarceration," Russo said.

For example, participants in the Veterans Treatment Court undergo extensive treatment, including attending meetings, classes and counseling sessions to help them deal with mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.

"Don't get me wrong, there are some who need to be incarcerated," Russo said. "But there are some who because of a mental health issue, they have trauma." Attempting to rehabilitate them is "good for the community, and good for families," he said.

If received, the grant money would primarily fund administrative and personnel costs during the first three years of the pilot, Russo said. No local funds will be used. During the fourth year, the court would focus on measuring impact — particularly recidivism rates. If the rates go down, Cuyahoga County would then ask the Ohio Supreme Court to certify the program as a specialized docket.

Word of the application comes just after a man allegedly murdered his ex-girlfriend, two children and their neighbor in Slavic Village. The woman had a protective order against him.

Under the plan, a dedicated judge would hear domestic violence cases deemed "high risk," meaning they have the potential to lead to partner homicide as determined by a questionnaire administered on-site by Cleveland police.

Russo plans to name Common Pleas Judge Sherrie Miday to handle those cases because of her past experience prosecuting domestic violence cases. Dedicated public defenders and private attorneys would also be assigned to the docket.

The grant application calls for the proposed docket to refer about 50 high-risk cases a year for rehabilitation, Russo said. In Cuyahoga County, domestic violence is treated as a misdemeanor on first offense and a felony on second offense and above. As a result, many of those referred would likely be repeat offenders.

County-wide crime statistics on domestic violence offenses were not immediately available, but in 2017.

The grant application comes about 10 years after a Cleveland Municipal Court judge started a task force to study domestic violence prevention. Russo joined the task force about six years ago, when he became the county's administrative judge.

Treatment Courts on the Rise

Domestic violence dockets already exist in several Ohio counties, including Stark and Summit. In all, Ohio has 254 specialized dockets, covering everything from human trafficking to sex offenders to child support.

Nationally, drug courts are the most common type of specialized docket. Nearly 150,000 people currently take part in drug treatment courts in the U.S., and 75 percent of those who graduate are not arrested for a repeat offense, according to the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

But drug courts have also received criticism. A report by the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates drug decriminalization, found that between 30 and 70 percent of drug court participants do not complete their programs — and that those who do participate may end up spending a longer time in jail during their treatment period than those who do not.

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