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Cuyahoga County Judge Outlines Progress, Holdups In Bail Reform

Updated 12:45 p.m. 12/31/19:

Local courts have tried to streamline the intake process for new defendants, but a major consolidation of bail-setting hasn't happened, according to a progress report on bail reform from Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court.

Judge John Russo released the report Monday as he concludes his term as the court’s administrative and presiding official. The four-page document reviews the court’s progress in following the recommendations of a March 2018 bail-reform task force.

People charged with felonies typically make a first appearance before a municipal judge prior to being “bound over” to the county common pleas court. Delays in that process, combined with unaffordable bail amounts, can confine defendants in jail for days or weeks before trial.

Bail reform advocates have pushed for more urgency in the court’s efforts in light of inmate deaths and a damning 2018 U.S. Marshals’ Service report on the county jail.

The court has worked to give felony defendants bail hearings and legal counsel more quickly, Russo wrote. But the county and 13 municipal courts still have not formed a centralized process for bail and pretrial services, one of the task force’s major proposals.

“Discussions of centralized booking have taken place on and off in the more than 15 years I have been a judge,” Russo wrote. “Many different versions of centralized booking have been discussed among the justice system stakeholders, but nothing concrete has ever been accomplished or pushed forward.”

Cuyahoga County is seeking $3 million from the state for such a center. The county would renovate office space on the third floor of the Justice Center, turning it into a “modern intake and assessment center,” according to a Tuesday news release.

The court created a “first appearance docket” in 2016 with the goal of bringing defendants before common pleas judges within four days of bindover, Russo wrote. He wrote that he has encouraged zero-cost personal bonds for nonviolent, low-level felonies.

The status update did not provide numbers showing how these efforts are working. But the population at the long-overcrowded Cuyahoga County Jail has dipped below capacity for the first time in years, according to a recent state report.

Cleveland Municipal Court has also tried to lower the jail population, launching a program in 2018 to release more defendants into pretrial monitoring rather than incarceration.

The common pleas court is now gauging whether it can link felony defendants with pretrial services as soon as they enter the court system at the municipal level, Russo wrote.

While Russo will remain on the bench, Judge Brendan J. Sheehan takes over as administrative and presiding judge in January.  

Read the full status update:

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