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What Happens During Cuyahoga County’s Criminal Arraignment Process?

An explainer on the felony arraignment process in Cuyahoga County.

For a person facing a felony charge, an arraignment is an important step in the justice process.

It’s the stage when the court makes sure a defendant has an attorney, keeps a previous bail, or sets a new one, and a judge is picked to oversee the case.

Bail is set in one of the county’s 13 municipal courts, or by a Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge after a grand jury indictment.

Whether a person has to pay to be released from jail and the amount they pay varies a lot from court to court — even when people face similar charges.

The county court has 34 elected judges who hear criminal cases.

Those judges can review bail and the conditions a person must follow to be released.

The Common Pleas judges take turns handling arraignment hearings.

In 2022, nearly 12,000 cases were set for arraignment, averaging more than 40 a day.

Arraignments follow a predictable rhythm.

The court calls the cases one at a time to be arraigned. People who line wooden benches in the courtroom come forward when their name and case number is called. Other defendants, who are in the jail, appear on a video screen.

The arraignment judge checks that the defendant knows the charges they face. The court assigns the defendant an attorney if they don’t have one.

Defendants enter a plea to the charges. At this stage, the plea is nearly always “not guilty.”

A judge may hear from the prosecutor. The prosecutor doesn’t decide the bail type or amount. But they can make arguments and share concerns of victims or witnesses, who also have a right to speak to the judge.

Defense attorneys can also make bail arguments or requests for defendants.

The court’s bond commissioner gives the judge a bail recommendation for each case. The commissioner has a staff of investigators who gather information on the defendant’s arrest and court history, and other details about their life.

The judge can keep the bail that was set in municipal court or set a new one.

The judge can also set conditions for a defendant’s release. That could include electronic monitoring or screening them for drugs.

After setting the bail, the court uses a computer program to randomly “roll” the name of the judge who will oversee the case going forward.

The whole arraignment process can take less than two minutes.

Ilica Mahajan Twitter Email is a computational journalist at The Marshall Project. She builds tools and analyzes data to uncover the complexities of the criminal justice system.

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.