Dozens of Ohio county inmates get deals amid coronavirus fears
Thirty-eight inmates are being transferred out of jail and either sent to prison or released into the community
By Cory Shaffer
Advance Ohio Media
CLEVELAND — The fear of the spreading coronavirus led to an unprecedented series of Saturday court hearings resulting in the release of dozens of inmates from the Cuyahoga County Jail.
Nine common pleas court judges held more than fifty hearings that led to 38 inmates being transferred out of jail and either sent to prison or released into the community on sentences of probation or time served. More judges expect to continue to ramp up the release of inmates at similar hearings scheduled for early Monday morning.
Setting up the court’s first-ever Saturday hearings required numerous county agencies to dedicate dozens of assistant prosecutors and public defenders, defense attorneys, sheriff’s deputies, probation officers and jail officials to staff the courthouse and the jail.
“This was a Herculean task,” Cuyahoga County Public Defender Mark Stanton said. “To put all of that together in a matter of 36 hours is really unprecedented in this county.”
The hearings, arranged within three days, demonstrated a sense of urgency to clear as much space in the county’s jail to make room for potential quarantine areas in the event that an inmate tests positive for COVID-19.
“We know that eventually that virus is going to hit our jail,” Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Administrative and Presiding Judge Brendan Sheehan said. “If that virus hits our jail, our jail will not be able to operate, and everything will be crippled.”
Defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges took a hands-on approach evaluating dozens of cases in efforts to resolve criminal cases to get as many inmates out of jail as possible through plea deals and bond-reduction.
The hearings expedited the pre-trial process for some people facing criminal charges. Defense attorneys and prosecutors met to reach plea agreements for some defendants. Others requested bond hearings. At least one defendant entered a plea deal, then rejected it as he stood before the judge and declared his innocence.
One defense attorney carried an aerosol can of disinfectant spray and doused all the door handles in each courtroom before she touched them.
Sheehan, Stanton, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Michael O’Malley and some of the judges who worked on Saturday praised the “spirit of collaboration” that went into Saturday’s hearings.
Stanton said he hoped the hearings provide a foundation to keep as many people as possible out of the jail in the future, when there is not a public health crisis.
“I hope that the public and the judges will see that the prosecutors office and the defense bar, along with the courts, can get together and see that justice is expeditiously achieved," Stanton said.
Judge Robert McClelland presided over 25 arraignments and issued a dozen personal bonds. Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Terese McKenna asked for high bonds in some cases, including those with defendants charged with raping children, domestic violence and shootings.
In a rare move, a woman arrested on a fifth-degree drug possession charge pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the arraignment room, where judges usually issue defendants bond. McKenna and an assistant Cuyahoga County public defender told McClelland that they reached a deal and could resolve the case Saturday.
The woman told McClelland she was in therapy and alcoholics anonymous meetings and asked him to “take it easy on” her. McClelland accepted the plea and sentenced her to time served and declined to issue a fine.
“You will be released today,” McClelland told her.
The inmates released Saturday included a man arrested after he failed to show for a court hearing because he didn’t have enough money for a bus pass. Sheehan let him out on a personal bond.
Sheehan sentenced another man to time served after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor theft. That man told Sheehan that he stole a blank paycheck from his boss and wrote himself a $600 check because he was mad he didn’t get a raise.
Judge Deena Calabrese sentenced a woman arrested for having a small amount of fentanyl to two years of probation and ordered her to complete drug-addiction treatment. Calabrese said it would have taken that woman “weeks” to settle her case on a normal court schedule.
She also took a plea deal from a man who has a mental illness who became homeless, stopped taking his medication and started using drugs. Police arrested him after he stole food from an Ohio City convenience store.
That man is set to be sentenced Tuesday, to give Calabrese enough time to set up mental health treatment and housing security program to accept him.
Some deals fall through
One hearing, in particular, highlighted the snags that the criminal justice system would leave people in amid a pandemic.
One man, a 25-year-old who arrested with drugs and a gun with a scratched-off serial number, stood before Sheehan in an orange jumpsuit with his hands cuffed behind his back, ready to plead guilty. His lawyer, John Luskin, and an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor reached a deal that would allow him to plead guilty to reduced charges and get a nine-month sentence to Lorain Correctional Institution.
But the man was also on probation to Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold for another conviction. She could still send him to prison for 11 months, even though she sentenced him to probation after his arrest on the charges that brought him into court on Saturday, Luskin said.
Saturday’s plea deal would have wiped out the potential 11-month sentence. But at the last minute, the man said he wanted to plead not guilty. He had a drug problem, he said, but the weapons weren’t his.
Sheehan stopped the hearing and told the man it was his right to take his case to trial. Sheriff’s deputies ushered him and Luskin back into a holding cell.
About three minutes later, deputies told Sheehan the man wanted to come back out and plead guilty. Sheehan said he wasn’t going to allow someone who just said he was innocent to plead guilty.
“Emergency situation or not, I’m not going to force anyone to plead guilty to anything,” Sheehan said.
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