Cuyahoga County sends more children to adult court than any other county in Ohio does. Almost all of the children affected are Black, leading community members to wonder why there’s such a large disparity.
Since 2012, 94 percent of Cuyahoga County children transferred to adult court – a process called a bindover – have been Black, according to state records.
There are two types of bindovers in Ohio, mandatory and discretionary. Ohio law requires juvenile judges to transfer children – sometimes as young as 14 – to adult court for the most serious charges, such as murder. Mandatory bindovers also apply to children accused of crimes such as rape, aggravated robbery or using a gun while committing a crime.
In discretionary bindovers, prosecutors ask a judge to consider transferring a child accused of a felony to adult court. The judge is supposed to consider the child’s mental health, education, family situation and social history before deciding whether to transfer the child.
Greater Cleveland Congregations brought community members together earlier this month to talk about the high number of Black children from Cuyahoga County being transferred to adult courts and serving time in adult prisons. They also learned about the significantly higher number of children being bound over compared to those in other counties.
Children who served time in adult prison are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted and eight times more likely to commit suicide, according to a report published in the U.S. Department of Justice’s website.
A 2007 Centers for Disease Control report examining the transfer of youth to adult court also found that children who serve time in adult prison are 34 percent more likely to end up charged with additional crimes compared to children who were kept in juvenile court.
Ronnie Cannon, who was bound over in the early 1990s, shared his story at the Greater Cleveland Congregations forum. After failing a class and getting kicked off the track team, Cannon gave up on school and “started roaming the streets,” he said. By 1993 he carried a gun he believed would protect him. Instead, when he was 16, he used that gun in a fight with a neighbor, killing him. He spent 19 years in prison.
“No longer did they put handcuffs on the front of me, but behind me,” he said, remembering the day of his sentencing. “Carted me off to the county jail, where I stayed in a holding cell with men twice my age.”
He recalled being held in a jail pod with eight other teens waiting to be bound over. All of them were Black, he said.
At the forum, panelists and leaders raised questions they hoped community leaders would address. Here are some of them:
What do we know about how many Cuyahoga County children are transferred to adult court?
The state collects data each year on children transferred to adult court from all 88 counties. It counts the data bases on a fiscal or budget year and not a calendar year.
The number of Cuyahoga County children bound over has increased since 2016.
Cuyahoga County has transferred more than 670 children to face criminal charges in adult court since 2012, according to the state.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s office believes the state data inflates the actual number of children bound over to adult court because some of the same children may be counted in separate years or for separate cases. The office also says bindovers are closely linked to crime trends, including the availability and use of guns.
The office has tracked lower numbers of children bound over compared to the state’s data.
For example, state data show 97 children from Cuyahoga County bound over during the 2021 state fiscal year. The prosecutor’s office said 74 children were bound over in 2021, four of whom had been bound over in a previous year. And in 2022, the prosecutor’s office counted 57 children bound over, eight of whom were bound over in a prior year.
The prosecutor’s office keeps track of children bound over on a calendar year basis. It’s unclear where the rest of the disparity comes from.
What do we know about racial disparity of bindover cases?
In Cuyahoga County, Black youth between 10 and 17 years old make up about 40 percent of the youth population, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention with the U.S. Department of Justice. But they account for 94 percent of the children being bound over to adult court.
Statewide, 81 percent of children bound over are Black.
The racial disparities are often traced to the 1990s, when children, especially Black and brown children, were blamed for a wave of crime, said Leah Winsberg, a Cleveland-based attorney with the Children’s Law Center.
“What we saw as a result of some really highly publicized and sensationalized cases, even though they were isolated, we had a moral panic in this country,” Winsberg said.
Ohio was one of several states that passed laws making bindovers more routine. For example, the Ohio legislature reduced the bindover age from 15 to 14 and passed additional laws that expanded the use of mandatory bindovers.
The prosecutor’s office does not consider the child’s race when deciding whether to request a bindover, a spokesperson said.
“As dictated by the law, our office looks at three factors when determining whether or not to file a bindover motion: age, offense, and criminal history,” the spokesperson at the county prosecutor’s office said.
Why do county public defenders represent so few children in bindover cases?
The Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s office is assigned to only a fraction of bindover cases, with the rest assigned to private attorneys appointed by the court’s judges, said Katherine Sato, an assistant state public defender with the Ohio Public Defender’s youth division.
Public defenders have special resources to handle complex bindover cases, including a social worker and investigator. This approach has had some success.
Earlier this year, the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s office started assigning a dedicated team including a public defender, a social worker and an investigator – in what’s known as vertical representation – to represent children in bindover cases as they’re transferred between juvenile and adult court.
None of the children in the 10 discretionary bindover cases that team has represented so far this year were bound over, Sato said.
Public defenders in Franklin and Hamilton counties handle the majority of bindover cases. They dedicate a four-person team to a child’s case as soon as the child is charged. That team includes two attorneys, a social worker and an investigator. In Franklin County, 17 children were bound over in 2021, state data shows. Hamilton County transferred 16 children in 2021.
“So we know that this model works,” Sato said. “And we’ve seen it work in Franklin County and in Hamilton County. We just want to replicate it in Cuyahoga County.”
The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court doesn’t track which bindover cases are appointed to the public defender’s office. The public defender’s office started tracking which bindover cases they were assigned at the beginning of 2022.
Chief Public Defender Cullen Sweeney said his staff estimated judges were assigned about 21 percent of all juvenile delinquent cases – not just bindover cases – to his office in 2021. And in 2022, the office has been assigned about one-third of bindover cases.
The juvenile court’s six judges decide whether to appoint the public defender’s office or a private attorney to a juvenile case. Those decisions are not uniform among the judges, Sweeney said.
“Some judges appoint us significantly more than others,” Sweeney said.
His office can handle more juvenile cases, he said, but it would not be able to handle all bindover cases without adding staff.
Next year, the court’s judges will discuss a proposal from the public defender’s office to change the way juvenile cases are assigned, said Benjamin Wilson, a court spokesperson.
An early draft of the proposal includes adding a rule that requires all cases with the possibility of a child being transferred to an adult court to be assigned to the public defender’s office unless an appointed attorney “is qualified and willing to continue as assigned counsel through the duration of the case” in either juvenile or adult court, Sweeney said.
The proposal, which Sweeney shared with Signal Cleveland, also requests changes to the way all juvenile cases are assigned. If approved, it would increase the percentage of cases the public defender’s office is assigned and would ensure almost all children being held at the county’s Juvenile Detention Center are represented by a public defender.
If you have been bound over or have had a family member get transferred to adult court in the past and would like to share your story, email Stephanie at firstname.lastname@example.org.