Ohio county to hold mass plea hearings to reduce jail population over coronavirus concerns

If one of the 1,900 inmates housed in the Cuyahoga County Jail tests positive, officials say the entire facility may require quarantine, a situation they want to avoid

Cory Shaffer
The Plain Dealer

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Cuyahoga County’s judges, sheriff and prosecutor have agreed to hold mass plea hearings to get as many people as possible out of the county’s jail to lessen the impact of a potential outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Common Pleas Court Administrative and Presiding Judge Brendan Sheehan told cleveland.com that the plan was to begin the process on Monday, but county officials are considering moving the start date to Saturday. A decision should be made following Thursday morning meetings, Sheehan said.

The fluid situation reflects the seriousness with which officials are operating after three Cuyahoga County residents tested positive for COVID-19, which the World Health Organization on Wednesday declared a global pandemic.

“We have to do something to reduce the jail population because of the coronavirus issue,” Sheehan said.

If one of the 1,900 inmates housed in the jail tested positive for the COVID-19 viral infection, the entire facility, including several corrections and medical staff might require quarantine. Sheehan said that scenario would leave the jail and the courthouse “crippled."

Sheehan hopes to avoid that scenario, but said officials are planning as though it is inevitable and devising ways to keep inmates and jail staff safe.

“It’s not a matter of if it happens," Sheehan said. “We’re preparing for when it happens."

Sheehan credited the county’s judges, Prosecutor Michael O’Malley, Sheriff David Gallagher, jail warden Gregory Croucher and County Executive Armond Budish for helping agree on the plan.

The plan calls for assistant prosecutors, defense attorneys, defendants and judges to work toward plea bargains to clear as many cases as possible, Sheehan said. Sheehan said he asked the judges to prioritize cases where the defendant is currently held in jail and is charged with non-violent and low-level felonies.

Each floor in the Justice Center that houses courtrooms is divided into courtrooms A, B, C and D. The original plan was for judges in the eight A courtrooms to hold their hearings on Monday, then the judges in B courtrooms on Tuesday, judges in C courtrooms Wednesday and judges in D courtrooms on Thursday.

It was unclear Thursday if the potential move to Saturday would effect the staggered nature of the original plan.

Officials floated the idea of holding mass bond hearings in 2019 to reduce the over-capacity and under-staffed Cuyahoga County Jail, after the U.S. Marshals authored a report detailing widespread Constitutional violations throughout the facility. But the mass plea hearings never materialized, and officials used other means, including hiring more corrections officers and constantly reviewing jailed inmates’ bonds, to reduce the population below the jail’s capacity last fall.

Criminal justice advocates across the country have called for local and state officials to reduce incarcerated populations to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19. The facilities tend to house people who are in relatively poor health because they often lack access to healthcare, both in the community and behind bars after they’ve been arrested, Maria Morris, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s National Prison Project, wrote on March 6.

“We have the opportunity to take steps now to limit the spread of the virus in prisons, jails, and detention centers,” Morris wrote. “But the time to act for the health of those incarcerated, and for the broader community, is now.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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