In GCC Event, Experts Decry Cuyahoga County's High Rate of Sentencing Juveniles as Adults

Cuyahoga uses bindovers more than all other urban Ohio counties combine

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click to enlarge Ronnie Cannon sharing his experience with the bindover process - Greater Cleveland Congregations
Greater Cleveland Congregations
Ronnie Cannon sharing his experience with the bindover process

Concerned Clevelanders gathered at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church Tuesday night to hear from experts and activists at an event organized by the Greater Cleveland Congregations on the controversial use of the bindovers, the process by which juveniles over the age of 14 have their cases transferred to adult court for prosecution and sentencing.

The issue is a crucial and critical topic locally: Cuyahoga County sentences more minors as adults than every other urban Ohio county combined — 97 in 2021, 94% of whom were Black.

“We stand as those who care and believe in the acorn theory,” said Rev. Dr. Jawanza Colvin. “That an acorn, and likewise a child, has everything in it to be everything it was meant to be. It just needs to be put in the right environment.”

Juvenile bindovers come in two types. In a mandatory bindover, the charges require this transfer. In a discretionary bindover, the juvenile court judge chooses to transfer the case. Both extract the juvenile from the rehabilitative focus of the juvenile justice system and expose them to the punitive adult system, advocates say.
“Bindover[s] [were] used really rarely in the history of juvenile justice systems and [it] was always up to the judge,” said Leah Winsberg, staff attorney with the Children’s Law Center. “However, in the 1990s, we saw false rhetoric labeling children of color as super predators. While we know that super predator myth wasn't true—it was debunked—and that crime wave that was predicted never arrived, we still have these laws on the books and they still predominantly harm children of color.”

Although bindovers have decreased statewide, Cuyahoga County’s cases remain high. In 2020, Cuyahoga accounted for more than 40% of all Ohio bindovers, more than Franklin, Hamilton, Montgomery and Summit combined. Slightly more than 91% of these youth were Black, according to the Ohio Department of Youth Services. 2021 numbers were no better.

The potential harm for minors in adult facilities is well documented. In addition to missing educational opportunities, these minors are twice as likely to be physically assaulted, five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and eight times more likely to commit suicide, according to Dr. Richard Redding and the Department of Justice. Because of this, many juveniles find themselves in solitary confinement.

“Beyond just the harm, or the impacts on the child, that bindover really harms our community and makes all of us less safe,” said Winsberg. “When we compare them to their peers who are kept in the juvenile system for the same or similar offenses, bindover youth are 34 times more likely to commit an additional felony offense.”

Community calls to action on bindovers are nothing new—and they've been successful before.

"We have eliminated and narrowed transfer laws, increased the age limit for bindover and obtained commitments from prosecutors to ban the use of bindover in their jurisdictions," said assistant state public defender Katherine Sato.

But Sato says that more work needs to be done, especially in Cuyahoga County, where the public defender's office represents only 20-25% of juvenile defendants.

That office implemented a vertical defender model, which utilizes a team consisting of an attorney, a social worker and an investigator. However, this model is only used in cases represented by the public defender. If a judge decides to appoint private counsel or the juvenile's case is a conflict of interest for the public defender's office, the child does not have access to the vertical defender model.

"We have consistently advocated for an increase in appointments and would like to see a more uniform assignment rule that would ensure greater representation of juveniles by the Public Defender’s Office," Chief Public Defender Cullen Sweeney told Scene.

Racial breakdown of Ohio bindovers in 2020. Data from the Ohio Department of Youth Services. - Children's Law Center
Children's Law Center
Racial breakdown of Ohio bindovers in 2020. Data from the Ohio Department of Youth Services.

The Tuesday night panel also discussed blended sentencing, the practice where a juvenile is sentenced to a juvenile facility as a minor with the potential to serve longer in an adult facility and, as bindover sentences cost taxpayers more than the alternative, urged county council to reconsider how it spends its budget.

"If the children are protected and able to rehabilitate when they make mistakes, and able to join society effectively and successfully, ready to be productive, that is our guarantee of future success," said TaKasha Smith, executive policy director of the Juvenile Justice Coalition. "Your county council, your county executive's office, have already proclaimed and committed to at least trying to end structural racism. So fund programs that will do that, fund behavioral health and mental health, fund the therapy that will actually bring those changes about."

In reaction to GCC's panel, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office spokesperson Alexandria Bauer told Scene, "We find it surprising that law enforcement, prosecutors, victims, victim advocates, and sitting juvenile judges were not brought to the table to discuss such a key public safety matter."

Bauer also said the prosecutor's office only considers age, offense  and criminal history in deciding whether to file a discretionary bindover motion.

But for the GCC community and the experts who spoke, the harm done to children comes without benefit to the community.

"It's not about being soft on crime," said Winsberg, "It's about being smart on crime."

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