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Brain Lock 

County officials are poised to spend $75 million on a new juvenile detention center that nobody wants. Unless they change their minds. Again.

A blustery wind whips the year's first snowfall down East 22nd Street, over the cars zipping down I-90, into puddles filled with decaying leaves and icy water. It's that wet, bone-chilling November cold mothers warn about: the kind that leaves clothes soaked and gives birth to pneumonia.

But the inside of Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court is a sauna. Old fans, with blades the size of P-51 fighter plane propellers, whirl in vain, trying to circulate air made stale by dozens of juvenile offenders, parents, guardians, attorneys, and court personnel sandwiched into a cramped first-floor hall.

The benches on either side of the long, narrow hallway are filled by 9 a.m. with people waiting to be called before the court. There's no place for a troubled kid to consult his attorney, let alone collect his thoughts. Most of the kids -- almost exclusively male and mostly black -- wear one of two looks on their faces: complete terror or haughty bemusement. Parents, grandparents, and other guardians run the gamut from annoyed to devastated, though all with the same bottom line: No way my baby did (insert crime here).

This is no place for gentlemen or chivalry. When an elderly woman gingerly makes her way down the hall with a cane and her delinquent grandson, no one gets up to offer her a seat. All she gets are cold stares and attitude: Take a number, lady. The fuzzy voice crackling over the PA system adds to the feeling that this is a supermarket of justice. Sale on tuna in aisle 5, and in courtroom 3 we'll hear little Jimmy's assault case.

Looming outside the courthouse windows like an implicit threat is the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, where minors are housed anywhere from 1 to 90 days, waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. The slate roof on the 67-year-old building blends in perfectly with the slate-gray sky. Stone engravings of cherubic children surrounded by books and globes adorn the building's exterior, hearkening back to a time when the detention center housed, in the words of Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jane Campbell, "kids throwing spitballs and cutting school."

That image fades quickly inside the building, though. There are still a few truants and minor troublemakers among the detention center's population, which routinely reaches 140 in a facility designed to hold 86 kids. On one visit, a pint-sized offender, no more than four feet tall and 10 years old, caused Len Munks, the superintendent of detention services, to remark, "They come in all sizes."

But generally, that size is big. Big, strong, fast, and in trouble. Among the more infamous inmates to pass through the detention center's doors were Mark DeMarco, the thug who raped and murdered Mary Jo Pesho before committing suicide in prison, and Tekili Smith, the 17-year-old killed last month after he attempted to rob the Tree House bar in Tremont.

On another, warmer day, a group of kids dressed in prison-issue shoes (Velcro straps instead of laces) and blue jumpsuits emblazoned with "CCJDC" march out to play basketball on the detention center's fenced-in playground. Several stare down visitors, eyeing them to see who will blink first, like junior tough guys proving their manhood. The weather offers a lucky break, since it's difficult to play basketball in the gym inside the decrepit facility. The hoops had to be removed earlier this year when administrators decided the crumbling masonry was too weak to support them.

That's just one small example of why virtually everyone in Cuyahoga County -- Mayor Michael White, the three county commissioners, members of Cleveland City Council, grassroots activists, juvenile court judges, and court administrators -- agree that the current detention center is out of date, woefully overcrowded, and desperately in need of replacement.

They've agreed on that point for nearly 15 years. What they can't agree on is where to build a new center.

Through a clash of egos, pride, misplaced priorities, shifting political currents, the occasional scandal, and an omnipresent not-in-my-backyard mentality, the juvenile detention center has become one of the most troublesome political footballs in recent memory. Dozens of plans have been floated and continue to float, but very little gets done. Meanwhile, the projected cost of the project spirals ever upward.

Currently, the County's official line to the Ohio Department of Youth Services is that everything is fine and on schedule. Plans are under way to build a new detention center at the current site, on Central Avenue, adjacent to the juvenile court. Never mind that everyone -- everyone -- involved with the project agrees that, at best, the plan is a dissatisfying compromise. At worst, it's a waste of up to $75 million taxpayer dollars for a facility that will be obsolete before a single brick is laid.

Even more surprising is the behind-the-scenes scurrying that, while well-intentioned, suggests the project is no further along than it was 10 years ago. While paying lip service to the current plan, three of the key players in the project -- Cuyahoga County commissioners Tim McCormack, and Jimmy Dimora, and Administrative Judge-elect of Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Peter Sikora -- have each targeted different sites, which they are quietly but actively promoting.

Though some incremental movement over the past month has left a few observers cautiously optimistic, there's nothing to suggest that an alternative agreement for a quality facility can be struck anytime soon. What's more likely is that the County will be stuck with a new detention center on a postage stamp of land that, public-interest groups claim, will make it very difficult for caseworkers and guards to effectively work with juvenile inmates.

"It's to the point of saying send [the kids] up the river," says Roslyn Talerico of the Cuyahoga County League of Women Voters, one of several groups that opposes the current plan. "Well, they come back down the river as adults."

Or, in the cases of DeMarco and Smith, as unfathomably violent kids.

Bleak House

Even a cursory tour reveals the depth of problems at a facility that, just two years ago, the National Juvenile Detention Association called "one of the most adult-oriented, bleak, depressing, unsafe, and psychologically harmful facilities that anyone on the review team ever visited."

Because the facility is so overcrowded, nearly half the kids sleep on roll-out beds in big common rooms. The toilets, which routinely back up, lack stalls. The power goes out. In several places, the walls are crumbling nearly as fast as the futures of many of the children housed there.

Even the few bright spots in the facility show the building's age. The cafeteria is tidy and bright, illuminated by skylights cut into the arching ceiling. The walls are decorated with mosaics, some featuring nursery rhyme scenes like Little Miss Muffett eating curds and whey as the spider descends.

"That's a good indication of how far from reality [the current facility] is to serve kids," says Jean Hutzler of the Juvenile Justice Policy Review Committee. "Most of these kids have probably never heard Mother Goose tales."

The inmates -- ages 9 to 18, about 75 percent black, and usually about 15-20 percent female -- wait there before being released, sent to a juvenile corrections facility or a shelter, or placed on home detention. Nearly a third are charged with drug-related offenses. Others are detained for receiving stolen property, domestic violence, or assault.

It is not a place kids would ever want to be. Inmates who have to be isolated for disruptive behavior sit alone in rooms, dressed only in socks, shorts, and T-shirts. They stare out the window of the cell door like caged animals in a zoo. "After all, it is a kids' jail," notes superintendent Munks.

That's abundantly clear in the area outside the holding cell for new inmates. The guards have tacked old newspaper clippings, memorial Mass cards, and funeral programs onto a cork bulletin board, like a Hall of Infamy for some of the detention center's most notorious graduates. "That's what some of our alumni have gone on to do," chuckles a guard. Amid the stories about DeMarco and Smith, the shooting death of Juwon Hopper, and the stabbing death of Alonzo Langford is a copy of the Lord's Prayer, written on lined paper in the unmistakable, oversized printed scrawl of a child.

Few know the conditions of the detention center better than Cuyahoga County Administrator Tom Hayes. Dubbed "The Tominator" for his no-nonsense, get-things-done demeanor, Hayes built his reputation reforming the county Board of Elections, restructuring the County's finances following the SAFE scandal, and reining in Gateway cost overruns. Two years ago, Hayes spent three months and more than $750,000 making badly needed short-term fixes to the detention center in the wake of the National Juvenile Detention Association report.

Now back at the County Administration Building, Hayes works out of an office completely devoid of decoration. At 7:15 one recent morning, he is hard at work in wingtips and a crisply pressed white shirt. But ask him about the troubled history of the new juvenile detention center, and even the unflappable Hayes sighs.

As he recounts them, plans to renovate and modernize the facility stretch back to 1985, though it wasn't until three years later that the state legislature kicked in a $5.5 million grant for renovations. As the number of kids housed at the center sometimes rose to more than double its capacity, talk shifted to the need to build a new detention center. But for the next eight years, until 1994, talk about a new center remained just that.

The debate over a new facility has always been a delicate dance between the county commissioners, who are charged with finding a site, and the notoriously quirky juvenile court judges, who have oversight of the center. Up until just a few months ago, the judges insisted that any new detention center be built adjacent to the court, even if that meant constructing an entirely new juvenile justice complex.

And there are other players. Any site in the city of Cleveland must be approved by that area's councilman, who has the power to block necessary zoning changes. Some local leaders have been conspicuous mostly by their silence -- suburban politicians, the business community, and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, who did not return calls for comment on this story, but has been criticized for ducking a controversial issue with an election looming less than a year away.

Another factor in the long and winding tale has been state funding, which has spurred the commissioners into action whenever bureaucrats in Columbus threaten to revoke it. Preserving an $8 million state grant is one of the primary reasons cited by the commissioners for the decision to build on the current site, though some activists are skeptical.

"Broadly speaking, that $8 million is such a small part of the final cost," says Mark Brauer, associate director of the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry Association. "To us, it's a red herring."

And with so many hands in the pot, there has never been one clear, authoritative leader to spearhead the project. "There has not been one strong voice consistently out there," says George Pelletier, chairman of the Juvenile Justice Policy Review Committee.

Instead, there's been a series of solitary albeit well-intentioned voices, all adding up to white noise.

A Social Crime

Around 1994, under constant pressure from then-juvenile court Administrative Judge Leodis Harris, county commissioners Tim Hagan, Mary Boyle, and Jim Petro began to explore building a new juvenile justice complex, incorporating both a new detention center and court. They even had a site picked out, on Euclid Avenue around East 65th Street. "Then SAFE hit," Hayes says, referring to the financial scandal that shelved any plans for new County construction.

In 1996, the state produced another financial incentive, awarding Cuyahoga County $8 million to construct a new detention center. That led to a renewed effort to find a site. "On that second search, we looked at dozens and dozens of properties," Hayes says.

"We talked to anyone with an idea where to put it," Campbell recalls. "[We looked at] everything from an old junkyard to doing it as part of an economic development package."

The commissioners thought they found a solution that year across the street from the current site, at St. Vincent Charity Hospital, which was asking $2.2 million for a 2.85-acre parcel of land. The County agreed to buy it. But then St. Vincent's reconsidered. "Over '96 and '97, that evaporated, because the hospital lost interest," Hayes says.

Talerico, of the League of Women Voters, says St. Vincent's lost interest because "the doctors didn't want the detention center across from them."

Karen Malone, a spokeswoman for the hospital, stresses the doctors' reservations were only one of many reasons St. Vincent's reneged. Either way, it would be the first in a string of snubs by businesses, residents, and elected officials.

As the site search plodded along, the situation at the center continued to deteriorate. A male worker was jailed after having sex with a 15-year-old girl he met while she was an inmate there. A 15-year-old boy was sexually assaulted when two 17-year-olds held him down so a third could rape him. A 17-year-old suspected murderer escaped and was later recaptured. The superintendent resigned amid allegations of guards beating inmates. And the National Juvenile Detention Association delivered its scathing report.

Hayes was brought in and quickly went to work. He fired several guards. He installed security cameras, fixed the plumbing and electrical systems, and gave the place a fresh coat of paint. But those fixes couldn't mask the need for a new facility.

The commissioners talked about acquiring the St. Vincent's land through eminent domain. Under pressure from the state to use the grant money, they decided instead to build a five-story, $34 million center on a 1.5-acre Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority parking lot next to the existing structure.

In an ensuing exchange that would become depressingly familiar, juvenile justice advocates criticized the plan, saying children need to be placed in a one- or two-story campus setting. They argued, and still do, that any new center should be on a site with enough room to accommodate a sprawling facility. The vertical tower design, they say, is the equivalent of cramming the kids into a human filing cabinet, out of the community's sight.

The commissioners, led by Hagan, insisted their hands were tied by the judges' insistence that the facility be adjacent to the court. But even as they made preparations to build at the current site on East 22nd Street, the three commissioners and six judges continued looking for a better site. Eventually they all agreed that a six-acre parcel at the County-owned Metzenbaum Center, on Community College Avenue near East 35th Street, would be ideal.

This time the dissenting voice came from Cleveland Councilman Frank Jackson, who noted the detention center would border a residential neighborhood that was beginning to attract investment and new homes. Residents demonstrated against the plan, and Mayor White said he would not approve any site without the approval of the councilperson.

The commissioners then turned to a four-acre plot on Croton Road, off East 37th Street. This time both the judges and Jackson balked, citing concerns about possible soil contamination, the size of the parcel, and its less-than-ideal location between a freeway and a women's prison.

The state was getting impatient. In May 1998 Ohio Department of Youth Services Director Geno Natalucci-Persichetti informed the commissioners that several other counties wanted the $8 million earmarked for the new detention center, and he gave them 30 days to settle on a site.

Facing that use-it-or-lose-it proposition, the County reluctantly returned to the 1.5-acre site of the current facility, a move McCormack opposed. Six months later, three of the juvenile judges withdrew their support for building there. That led to another flirtation with St. Vincent's and then a new plan to build the detention center on East 55th Street, as part of a complex including a minimum-security jail and a homeless shelter. That proposal was blocked by White and Councilman Joe Cimperman earlier this year, sparking a well-publicized city-county feud.

In May, for the third time in three years, the commissioners once again retreated to the site of the current facility, despite misgivings so severe that McCormack said at the time, "We are building a facility we should not be building." A diverse coalition agreed, with everyone from the League of Women Voters to the NAACP voicing their dissatisfaction. The County nevertheless trudged ahead with plans for a new 180-bed facility, which had grown to seven stories at an estimated cost between $55 and $75 million.

"If they build it there, it will be a social crime," Administrative Judge Harris declares.

Hayes understands the criticism, but says that, given the site-selection constraints, the time to act is now. "This site-selection process is going on 14 years, and the kids are still in the place they've always been," he says. "We can keep searching and searching and searching, and have this conversation five years from now."

But a growing number of activists and observers argues it would be better to wait a little longer and build a model facility instead of trying to shoehorn the planned high-rise center on what McCormack called a "sliver" of land -- particularly since the new facility will have to serve the county for 40 years or longer.

"To build part of the pie doesn't make sense, and to do it to protect eight million bucks makes even less sense," says Ervin Wherzbinski, who worked as the juvenile court administrator for 11 years and still sits on the court's citizen advisory panel.

He sees the failure to find an acceptable site as an indictment of the region's political leadership. "There are three Democratic county commissioners, one of whom is head of the [Democratic] party," he points out. "You have a Democratic mayor, a lot of Democrats on council, four of the six juvenile judges are Democrats, and you can't come to an agreement? To me that doesn't make sense.

"Somebody should be able to pull all these parties together and come out with something," Wherzbinski says. "It makes us all look like a bunch of idiots -- we the public and our politicians."

Private Agendas

It's too strong to call them idiots. But it is incredible that, after all the debate and flip-flopping, the three commissioners still have separate ideas and plans for the new detention center. Even as drawings are being prepared for city approval on the current site, the commissioners are pursuing three separate agendas about where it should be.

The outspoken McCormack, who has made family and children's services his calling card during nearly three years in office, talks about the detention center as just one segment of the County's efforts to help troubled youths. He believes that, until construction begins on East 22nd, the commissioners have a responsibility to explore better site possibilities.

"None of the participants -- judges or commissioners -- chose to take this approach," McCormack admits. But he has a multi-acre site in mind for a sprawling facility on the city's East Side. He won't divulge the exact location, citing a need to quietly round up support from residents and city officials before making it public.

Campbell was sworn in with McCormack in 1997 and, like her colleagues, admirably refuses to pass the buck on a problem that predates all of them. (Dimora was sworn in this year.) She says the judges' insistence that a new detention center be attached to juvenile court made site selection very difficult. Despite the fact that the judges have backed off that demand, Campbell says the County should go ahead with plans to build on the current site.

"This has been going on for 13 years," she says. "We need to build it."

Dimora, who is also chairman of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, once said the new facility would be built on the current site "over his dead body." And he's not backing off that statement.

"The bottom line is, I don't think it's going to be built there," he says of the current site.

If not, then where? "I think that possibly the St. Vincent property will come into play, and hopefully there will be an alternative we can look at in the very, very near future."

Dimora acknowledges such a move better be made posthaste. "All this money is being spent on design work and site testing and surveying and this stuff," he says, referring to the nearly $1 million the County has already spent. "But we wanted to lock in that $8 million [in state aid], so we had to make a move."

The commissioners concede that the current proposal's seven-story design is purely a function of their size constraints. Essentially, they're building up instead of out. Yet doing so requires either construction to be done in two phases -- which means the inmates will be shuffled around the current facility -- or moving the children off-site as building progresses. Such considerations mean construction will take longer and cost more money -- up to $20 million more.

"The building design is what's driving that cost up," Dimora admits.

But the building design is a function of the space, and the space decision was made primarily to preserve an $8 million state grant. So the County is spending an additional $20 million to save $8 million?

Dimora lets loose a nervous laugh. "That's why we're looking at, hopefully, some miracle will come into play, and we'll be able to pull a pleasant surprise out that the judges and everybody will go along with."

At this point, getting everyone to agree to the same plan would require nothing short of a miracle.

Juvenile Juvenile Judges

People who are kind describe the six Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court judges as "colorful." Others use terms like "wackos" and paint at least some of the judges as petty, vindictive, and self-aggrandizing.

"There are six judges, and they operate their own fiefdoms," says children's activist Jim Lardie.

Actually, there are only five active judges, since Robert Ferreri was suspended for six months by the Ohio Supreme Court for making controversial comments about another judge after one of his decisions was reversed on appeal. Ferreri also reportedly called two county juvenile court officials "incompetent bureaucrats."

There have been other questionable actions from the juvenile court bench. Now-retired Judge Betty Willis Ruben held two assistant county prosecutors in contempt, a decision that was later overturned. Ferreri was stripped of a high-profile case after Ruben accused him of stealing the case from Judge Patrick Corrigan, to whom it was initially assigned. There has been constant bickering among nearly all the judges and a growing perception that they are using their jobs as political stepping stones to higher-profile judicial seats.

This poses a problem for the commissioners, because they have to get a majority approval from the judges for the new site. Commissioners past and present acknowledge that dealing with so many disparate voices can be difficult.

Mary Boyle served as a county commissioner from 1985-'96 and can cite several reasons why a new facility was not built during her tenure. But "the major reason," she says, "is because the judges could never and would never agree on anything."

Dimora agrees. "All of them have different perspectives, different opinions, different outlooks, different visions of what the detention center should have and what we should be doing with it. So it has been very complicated."

Adding to the complexity is the revolving leadership. Over the past four years, the juvenile judges have had four different administrative judges. "There were so many [administrative] judges in the time I was involved," Boyle says, "the politics of who would be the leader and the voice became very complicated and very difficult."

Earlier this month, Sikora was elected administrative judge by his colleagues for 2000. As he did in 1995, Sikora has promised to make building a quality juvenile detention center his top priority.

Child welfare activists and court staffers say Sikora's commitment is beyond question. In an interview in his second-story office, Sikora speaks thoughtfully about the problems with the proposal to build on the current site and the disappointment he feels that plans have not "evolved" the way he hoped they would. After persuading the judges to allow the new center to be built off-site, Sikora wants to see an entire new juvenile justice complex built -- or at least a new detention center and an expansion of the court facilities on the old site.

Like nearly everyone else involved, Sikora has his own idea where to put the new facility. While Sikora stresses he is open to any ideas on where to put the facility, both McCormack and Cleveland City Councilman Joe Cimperman say the judge has been shopping a plan to put it on the site of the old Richman Bros. building on East 55th Street -- the same place that set off the firestorm between White and the commissioners earlier this year.

Few politicians, it seems, share the vision of the man who will be the court's lead voice next year.

"If he wants to go to City Hall and get a letter [of support] from the Council . . .," McCormack says, not finishing his sentence. "We've been through that. It's not proven to be productive."

While Sikora's zealousness for a new facility has impressed activists, it can be off-putting to others. During an interview with McCormack, Sikora called to say he was coming to the County Administration Building for an impromptu meeting with the commissioner, whose schedule is generally planned days in advance.

McCormack looked exasperated, saying tersely, "Tell the judge I will call him when I am finished with this meeting."

Cimperman, who has endured his share of gaffes in protocol this year, shares a similar story. While stressing his respect for Sikora, Cimperman recounts how the judge called to ask for his support of the East 55th site. Cimperman considered the proposal, but decided he could not support it. But three days later, Sikora appeared at a city council meeting to lobby officials about his plan.

Cimperman is still fuming about what he saw as a violation of protocol and an end-run around his authority.

"I think public planning should be done by a little more than drawing something on a napkin and calling someone and asking them for an answer the next day," Cimperman says. "I'm hearing this from a judge -- not the six judges, not the commissioners -- and yet he's taking it upon himself to come to a public council meeting and lobby my 20 colleagues? I just don't do business that way."

Few, it seems, do business the way they do in Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court.

Society's Rejects

There's plenty of blame to go around in the detention center debacle and no lack of finger-pointing by the participants. But in some ways, it's the lack of support -- from elected leaders to the community at large -- that has been most damaging.

"Nobody wants [the new detention center] anyplace," notes Lutheran Ministry's Brauer. "Nobody wants it in their backyard. Somebody has got to go to bat for these kids to get something decent."

McCormack is cautious about criticizing the judges, saying only that it's imperative they come to a unanimous agreement on where a new detention center should go. He holds no similar reservations about picking a fight with the city of Cleveland.

McCormack criticizes what he sees as "the silence of the Cleveland business community and City Hall," motioning out his window toward Cleveland City Hall for emphasis. "These are city kids, almost 10 out of 10. This is a city issue. I'm almost dumbfounded that they won't sit at the table."

While Mayor White makes an inviting target, McCormack's comments underscore yet another example of Northeast Ohio's political leadership bickering instead of working toward regional solution. Be it the expansion of the airport, the dust-up over the Euclid corridor improvement project, or the failure, after 15 years, to find a suitable site for a new juvenile detention center, workable solutions have taken a back seat to political fighting.

And it's not just the City of Cleveland. Hayes says that, while the commissioners were always leaning toward placing the new detention center downtown -- because of its central location and access to public transportation -- they did send a letter to every municipality in Cuyahoga County, asking if the cities would be open to hosting a new facility. Only one said yes -- notoriously troubled East Cleveland.

White refused to comment for this story, but both Cimperman and Jackson say accusations of a "not in my backyard" attitude from the City of Cleveland are unfounded. Cimperman points to the agreement to build two county homeless shelters in his ward as an example of cooperation between the city and county. Yet he thinks a new detention center should not be built in the city.

"Kids don't need to live in a tower. They don't need to live in an asphalted, concrete box of detention," Cimperman says. "Everything that I've heard and understood says that an open field -- where kids can run and be kids and be away from the environment that has been a part of why they're in jail -- would be the best thing."

Cimperman also believes the discussion about site selection has been less than candid. "The bottom line is this: We value land [in the suburbs] in terms of development more than we do the futures of our children," he says. "If we want to get these kids healthy, we need to get them where they can run around, where there's grass, where it's wide open. We don't have many places like that in the city of Cleveland. Yet we keep coming back to the table, saying where can we stick this in the city?"

Jackson, whose ward includes the current facility, also feels there's been a lack of candor on the County side. "One of the issues is that the judges don't want to move out of downtown. If it's not glitzy, they don't want to be bothered with it," Jackson says. "For them to say no one is assisting them, it's not right. That's not so. What we don't want is for them to impose something on us that's harmful to children."

In the end, that's what the argument is all about -- children. And not just any children. "Anything involving those terrible kids is not popular to do," Talerico says. Mostly poor and mostly black, these are society's rejects, the cast-offs who have few champions. At best, they're a collective annoyance to the community. At worst, they are our nightmares come to life.

Outside, the snow continues to fall and blow. Off in the distance, the signature toothbrush lights of Jacobs Field can be seen against the gray sky. In that County project, suburban voters approved a $150 million sin tax on alcohol and tobacco, and the County ultimately ponied up more than $300 million in public funds to build a state-of-the-art playground for adult millionaires. Since 1994, when the County started searching in earnest for a site to build a new detention center, the baseball park has been filled with sellout crowds from places like Rocky River and Mentor and Medina. Behind that sits Gund Arena, where sometimes it seems the only black faces are the ones working the concession stands or on the basketball court.

Watching the snow tumble down on Jacobs Field, it feels a lot further than 13 blocks away. It feels a world away.

Mike Tobin can be reached at mtobin@clevescene.com.

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