The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center is seen on Tuesday, January 17, 2023.
The Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center is seen on Tuesday, January 17, 2023. Credit: Stephanie Casanova / Signal Cleveland

The Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office is asking the juvenile court to assign public defenders more cases, including more serious cases. 

The office currently handles about 25 percent of all juvenile delinquency cases; the rest are assigned to private attorneys. In September, the office sent Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Administrative Judge Thomas O’Malley a proposal that would increase that percentage. 

Currently, each  judge assigns cases to either a public defender or a private attorney.

“We’re not looking to try to provide exclusive representation, but we do think that it should be something closer to 50 percent of the cases,” said Cullen Sweeney, the chief public defender. “I do feel that we have some real strengths to be able to represent, especially kids that are being housed at the detention center.”

Because the public defender’s office is located in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, Sweeney said his attorneys are better equipped to build relationships with children detained there. The office also has five social workers who work with their attorneys as part of a youth’s defense team.

Public defender’s office advocates for more cases

The proposal, which Sweeney shared with Signal Cleveland, suggests adding a rule that requires all cases with the possibility of a child being transferred to adult court – a process called a bindover – 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,” Sweeney said. Ohio law requires attorneys to have additional education and years of experience for more serious felony-level cases that could result in a child being locked up.

In discretionary bindover cases where a child is facing transfer to adult court, the assigned social worker learns about a child’s home life.

This background helps the child’s lawyer prepare for an amenability hearing where the judge decides whether the child can still be helped by the juvenile system. 

Cuyahoga County transfers a significantly higher number of youth to adult court than other Ohio counties do. Of the youth transferred to adult court, 94 percent are Black.

The juvenile judges expect to discuss the proposal this month, a court spokesperson said.

The proposal also requests:

  • That a public defender be assigned to any new case if the public defender’s office is already representing a child in another case.
  • That the court assign a public defender to represent all children detained at the county’s Juvenile Detention Center unless there are conflicts involving co-defendants. For all other cases, it requests that the office be assigned 50 percent of cases using the last digit of the case number similar to the way cases are assigned in adult Common Pleas Court. 

Conflicts could include a case where a public defender already represents the victim. The office also can’t represent more than one child accused of the same crime because each child could be a potential witness in the other case, Sweeney said. 

Cullen Sweeney is the chief public defender of the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office. Photo from 2022. Credit: Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office

The public defender’s office has long advocated for more cases, Sweeney said. His office can handle more cases without adding additional staff, he said. 

“Sam Amata – our longtime Juvenile Division supervisor – has been there for decades and has constantly been pushing for this in conversations with the court,” Sweeney said in an email.

The proposal is an early draft, and Sweeney said he expects judges to have their own ideas as the conversation continues. 

Vertical representation shows success

Earlier this year, the Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office put together a team including public defender Brant DiChiera, 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. The prosecutor’s office has a similar team. 

The office has been requesting that DiChiera be assigned in bindover cases. Judges have granted all of those requests, Sweeney said. 

“I don’t think there’s been a time when a Common Pleas judge has said no,” Sweeney said. 

Since the dedicated public defender’s team started representing children in discretionary bindover cases, none of the children in the first 10 assigned cases have been bound over.

After receiving the letter, Sweeney said, Judge O’Malley told the public defender he wanted to wait for new judges to join the court in January before discussing the proposed changes. 

Amata, who has worked at the public defender’s office for almost 37 years, said this is the first time he has seen the office propose a rule change. Public defenders have commented on proposed changes in the past but have never suggested their own changes. Any changes made to court rules could take a few years, Amata said. 

Private attorney weighs in

Walter Edwards, an attorney on the court’s list of private counsel, said the quality of representation a defendant gets depends on the individual attorney.

Edwards was a law clerk at the public defender’s office in 2001, before and through law school and practiced at the public defender’s office until about eight years ago, he said.  

While the public defender’s office has resources to help represent children in juvenile cases, Edwards said private attorneys have similar resources or can use the same resources from the Juvenile Detention Center. 

“So if I need, you know, an investigator or something else, you can apply to the court for funding to accommodate that need,” Edwards said. “So yes, while the public defender’s office has tremendous resources, assigned counsel has the ability to petition the court to satisfy whatever need may arise given an individual case.”

In bindover cases, the court’s psychiatric clinic evaluates children for an amenability hearing, Edwards said. Social workers typically interview family members and gather records. Private attorneys can also interview family members and obtain records, he said. 

Sam Amata, Cuyahoga County Public Defender’s Office juvenile supervisor, is pictured in his office in 2022. Credit: Cuyahoga County Public Defender's Office

Attorneys with the public defender’s office visit the children they represent more often, Amata said.  

“Our attorneys spend a lot more time talking to them than the assigned lawyers do,” Amata said. “It’s pretty easy for us to just go down to the first floor, find a client and spend some time with them. It’s not that easy for someone whose office is a couple miles away.”

Edwards said he visits his clients “as frequently as we can” and often schedules video visits within 24 hours if a social worker at juvenile court tells him his client needs to talk to him. 

He said it would be inaccurate to make a generalization about whether the public defender’s office represents children better than a private attorney because it depends on the individual attorney. 

“I would say that there are very qualified appointed attorneys, and the public defender’s office does a very good job as well,” Edwards said. “I don’t see a great disparity in the quality of representation.” 

Criminal Justice Reporter (she/her)
Stephanie, who covered criminal justice and breaking news at the Chicago Tribune, is a bilingual journalist with a passion for storytelling that is inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities she covers. She has been a reporter and copy editor for local newspapers in South Dakota, Kansas and Arizona. Stephanie is also a Maynard 200 alumni, a Maynard Institute for Journalism Education training program for journalists of color that focuses on making newsrooms more equitable, diverse and anti-racist.