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Now that Justice Center impasse has been broken, Cuyahoga County officials and judges must move quickly to seal the deal, identify solutions: editorial

December 28, 2018

Now that Justice Center impasse has been broken, Cuyahoga County officials and judges must move quickly to seal the deal, identify solutions: editorial

The good news is that Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and the county’s general division judges have finally found a way forward to resolve their nearly yearlong impasse over how much input judges will have into the process of replacing, renovating or moving the county’s Justice Center in downtown Cleveland.

The bad news is that the delay has taken up nearly a year during which jail inmates died and other reforms languished.

That makes it all the more important that county officials move expeditiously now to finalize the deal and move ahead with a consultant contract to explore alternatives. 

Under the memorandum of understanding struck about a week ago, members of a proposed 12-member advisory committee on the Justice Center, representing judges, county officials and others, have until the end of the year to register any concerns before the MOU is finalized.

The committee would include Budish, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, the presidents of Cuyahoga County Council and Cleveland City Council, the county sheriff, prosecutor and public defender, the presiding judges of Cuyahoga County’s general and domestic relations divisions and of Cleveland Municipal Court, and the clerks of Common Pleas and Cleveland Municipal Court.

Once the MOU is approved, any decision by the 12-member advisory group would require a supermajority of 10 to finalize. However, under the deal, the county retains the ultimate say on any legislative or spending decisions.

The basic intent of the MOU is to reassure judges that the county won’t dictate a Justice Center solution to them, and to reassure Budish that the judges can’t force the county to adopt a course of action or spend money without his and County Council’s agreement. 

As soon as the MOU is finalized, County Council is expected to move ahead quickly with a consultancy contract with Project Management Consultants of Cleveland led by attorney Jeff Appelbaum to examine options for the Justice Center’s future. Appelbaum has been instrumental in other major county projects, including the move of county headquarters to another spot downtown, to enable construction of a convention center hotel on that site.

Yet the delays on drafting the Justice Center MOU have been costly. During the months that Budish and Administrative and Presiding Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John J. Russo were at odds over how to word the MOU, seven jall inmates in county custody died, six of them at the Justice Center jail where a recent U.S. Marshals Service appraisal found “inhumane” conditions.

The county’s takeover of Cleveland jail operations earlier this year, creating an unanticipated shortage of county corrections officers and of the nurses and other medical staff needed to oversee the jail, suddenly accelerated the urgency of finding a solution to the overcrowded and inefficient county jail. But the stall on the Justice Center’s future helped prevent a full assessment and prompt solutions on the jail.

Meanwhile, Common Pleas Court bail reform to make sure that suspects don’t spend excessive time in jail for lack of the money to make bond slowed to a crawl, in part because Russo failed to show a sense of urgency over the need to move rapidly, even as inmates died in County Jail. 

Now that the ice jam on the Justice Center has been broken, speedy and well-considered actions to resolve a new way forward for the outmoded jail and deteriorating Justice Center and on accelerating bail reform must quickly follow.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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