Cuyahoga County Jail Population at Lowest Level in History. It Should Never Go Back to the Way it Was.

The Cuyahoga County Jail. - FlickrCC
The Cuyahoga County Jail.
Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announced Friday morning that the county jail currently houses 1,331 inmates, the lowest population level in the facility’s history.

The jail’s capacity is technically 1,765, and Budish said that only months ago, the population was “hovering around” 2,000. That’s standard. In fact, at the height of the jail’s grotesque overcrowding in 2018, the population was nearly 2,400.

Budish credited local judges, prosecutors, the bar association, the sheriff’s department and others who have been working to remove low-level offenders and those, including the elderly, who are especially susceptible to the Coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

His comments at the county’s public health press conference were striking in what they revealed about the criminal justice system: namely, that the people who have been released probably shouldn’t have been incarcerated in the first place. Budish said that judges were working to clear out non-violent offenders, who, in their view, “really don’t need to be there.”

Removing these populations from crowded, captive environments is obviously smart policy in the age of a global pandemic, and doing so follows the recommendations of human rights and criminal justice advocates across Ohio who have suggested that jails should release people being held for nonviolent offenses, especially those with limited time left to serve; people being held because they can’t afford bail; people who are elderly or have underlying health conditions; and people being held in pre-trial detention.

Thursday, Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor called on judges to set lower bonds to reduce jail populations as well.

This should all be the norm moving forward.

Budish remarked Friday that the current jail numbers were “hard to comprehend,” and that’s true in large part because the story of the Cuyahoga County Jail in recent years has been its abominable treatment of inmates. That treatment extends beyond the conditions of inhumanity, including overcrowding, which were chronicled by the U.S. Marshals in their Nov. 2018 report, following seven deaths at the facility over the course of six months.

Nevertheless, the inhumanity persists. Shortly before the widespread restrictions imposed by the state to prevent the spread of COVID-19, reported that the county jail had eliminated in-person visitation. This was instantly pegged by experts as a “dehumanizing, money-making endeavor.”

It shouldn't have to be spelled out that releasing low-level offenders and the elderly is the humane, moral thing to do during the current crisis. But it's also the case that the county should continue doing so in the wake of the pandemic, and not just on moral grounds. The long-term ramification of a criminal justice system less oriented toward punishment has positive economic ramifications for local government and its finances. 

During conversations about a new jail facility in 2019, Cuyahoga County Councilman Dale Miller proposed a jail capacity of 1,550 inmates, estimating that the county could save more than $800 million in construction and operating costs as compared to a consultant’s model, which called for a capacity of 2,150 inmates.

“We can and should set a jail population target that is considerably lower than even the most aggressive scenario” Miller wrote in a criminally under-reported letter to his colleagues. He suggested that the target could be reached by eliminating cash bail, diverting mentally ill and addicted people to treatment facilities, establishing central booking, processing cases quicker through the courts, and releasing low-level offenders earlier in the court process.

COVID-19 is proving that Miller’s recommendations are possible. Indeed, the aggressive targets can even be exceeded if the current system begins to focus less on punishment as its essential function.

Beyond policy adjustments, this will require a radical attitudinal shift in the general population. At Friday’s press conference, a reporter from a local TV station asked Budish about a story they were investigating concerning an alleged murder suspect who might have been included among the released prisoners. Could Budish guarantee that the general population was safe from these released inmates?

Budish said he didn't know what the reporter was talking about, but reiterated his trust in the judgement of the county’s administrative judge, Brendan Sheehan, and calmed the reactionary older adults who comprise local TV news' median viewership by assuring the reporter that violent criminals and sexual offenders would not be released.

He added, in a frankly shocking moment of candor, that one reason why low-level offenders haven’t been released in the past is because elected officials were terrified that released inmates might go on to commit violent crimes, after which the bloodthirsty news media could be counted upon to do precisely what the local TV station was doing at that moment: setting the table for blaming the elected officials for releasing them. 

“And then we lose our re-election,” Budish said.

Well, that should be disgusting to everyone: not only the self-interested political calculations of elected officials, but the instinct of local media to sensationalize and blame to rile up their audience.

COVID-19 is exposing some of our society's most flagrant injustices, and forcing us to interrogate previously ironclad assumptions. It should be clear that what passes for our county's, and indeed our country's, criminal justice system is in desperate need of re-examination. The policies enacted in these times of crisis should be adopted permanently.

Releasing low-level offenders, eliminating cash bail, drastically reducing sentencing. All these things move us toward a more compassionate, forgiving world. And no one should forget that after the virus has run its vicious course.

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.