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What Are the ‘Exit Ramps’ From Incarceration in Cuyahoga County?

Help us report on how well the courts provide people charged with low-level felonies a second chance.

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

A reader submitted a question to Testify, our ongoing investigation into Cuyahoga County’s criminal courts. The reader wanted to know whether a particular judge had “ever used the Diversion Program for any defendant in her courtroom?”

The question seemed straightforward at first. But when we started looking for the answer, we came back with more questions. First, what does “diversion” really mean in the Cuyahoga County court system?

Diversion is an umbrella term referring to programs that offer alternatives to incarceration — like “exit ramps” on a highway. These interventions happen at different points within the criminal justice system: before a police encounter, before an arrest, before charges, or before a conviction and incarceration.

The Cuyahoga County felony courts have offered some form of diversion for decades. In theory, they exist to give people another chance, sparing some defendants a felony conviction and the collateral damages of incarceration such as family separation or job loss. Keeping people from behind bars has practical benefits for the county too — as jail conditions worsen and the county pours more money into covering staff hiring and overtime, overcrowding grows.

Answering simple questions about diversion is difficult for a number of reasons. For starters, each of the four diversion programs offered within the court system is unique. Prosecutors get to pick who qualifies for some of the programs. Defendants get to decide if they want to participate. Some programs require defendants plead guilty before starting a year-long program. If successful, their case will be sealed and expunged. Defendants in other programs are sentenced before entering diversion. These cases are reopened and dismissed if the program is successfully completed.

The courts heard an average of 3,000 low-level and non-violent felony cases annually between 2016 and 2021. The court’s annual report shows how many of these defendants enter each diversion program. But it does not include demographic information or completion rates. And when cases are dismissed or expunged, they are impossible to track in court data — the records disappear. So, even after several calls to the public defender’s office, prosecutor’s office and probation department — we still don’t know whether a record of successful diversion completions and expungements exists. And we still don’t know how many people qualify for diversion, but don’t enter into a program, and why.

Over the course of the next few months, we’re going to take a closer look into diversion programs in Cuyahoga County. We’ll share what we learn in our weekly newsletter as well as on our Testify FAQ homepage, where we’ve been answering reader’s questions.

In the meantime, we want to hear from you! Have you been through a county diversion program: Pretrial Diversion, Early Intervention Program, Second Chance Program or Intervention in Lieu of Conviction? Tell us what happened. Do you know about diversion outcomes in the county? Tell us what you found.

Share your experiences and insights by filling out the form below, emailing us at testify@themarshallproject.org, or leaving us a voice message at ‪(216) 446-5001‬.

Tell Us About Your Experiences With Cuyahoga County’s Diversion Programs

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Alexandra Arriaga Twitter Email is a former engagement reporter at The Marshall Project. At City Bureau in Chicago, she used surveys, translation and targeted outreach to report on civic participation in immigrant communities. Previously, at the Chicago Sun-Times, she investigated informal labor agencies and restaurants in the Midwest that relied on trafficking undocumented migrants primarily from Mexico and Central America. At Wisconsin Watch, Alex surveyed incarcerated people as part of an investigation into the use of solitary confinement.