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Why We’re Investigating the Cuyahoga County Court System

A photo of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center building is overlayed with the underlined word, "Testify".

Thousands of people walk through the doors of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center each year to have their felony cases heard by judges.

Though Black people make up only about 30% of the county's residents, almost two-thirds of the people who are arrested by police and charged with felonies by prosecutors are Black. Then, after judges impose sentences, state records show three-quarters of people in state prisons convicted in Cuyahoga County are Black.

That’s evidence that justice is not always blind. Here’s how: Cuyahoga County allows anyone with access to the internet to look up a person’s case records. But there's no way to use those individual records to assess the records of individual judges, and the court has not released that data publicly.

Judges play a key role in the way justice is dispensed. Bringing transparency to how they do their jobs is essential to understanding flaws in the larger system. It’s also urgent for voters, who have the task of electing them or voting them off the bench. That’s what The Marshall Project heard from a chorus of academics, attorneys, people who have experienced the system firsthand, and more than 40 voters whom we worked with Cleveland Documenters to interview.

The Marshall Project is launching a new project — called “Testify” — with an examination of who holds power when it comes to picking judges.

You may have heard about The Marshall Project, a national journalism nonprofit that works to demystify the criminal justice system. Testify, which is being published by multiple media partners, is the first investment in what we hope is a collaborative relationship with Greater Clevelanders, as we launch our very first local news team in 2022.

Some of the work we plan in 2022 is based on a massive undertaking: using tools to "scrape" the records, one case at a time, from the internet dockets to assemble a database that could be analyzed — and shared with the public.

We’ve also spent months gathering questions from the community, and those questions will help us explore the points where injustice creeps into the system.

We found an imbalance in power when it comes to electing judges.

By looking at election and court data, we discovered that people who live in neighborhoods more affected by the court system, and who know it best, vote less often in judicial races.

To learn more about what that means for justice in Cuyahoga County, read our story here.

Testify is The Marshall Project’s investigation into Cuyahoga County’s Criminal Courts. Learn more about this project and how to contact us directly. Have questions? Attend our office hours on February 3rd or February 8th.

Rachel Dissell Twitter Email is a Cleveland-based journalist with more than two decades of experience reporting on the justice system. She is a two-time winner of the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma.