By Rachel Dissell, Ilica Mahajan, Anna Flagg, and Wesley Lowery
Published in partnership with The Marshall Project. To read more, go to: https://testify.news/
Few people in Cuyahoga County wield as much power over as many lives as the 34 elected judges who preside over felony cases. These Common Pleas judges consider the cases of thousands of people a year, making decisions about bail, plea deals, and sentencing. They determine who feels the full weight of the law and who receives leniency.
But when it comes time for residents to vote those judges in — or out — of office, the people with the most at stake often don’t cast ballots.
Attorneys, academics, and people who have experienced the system firsthand offered fundamental reasons for low turnout: a glaring lack of useful information about how the courts operate and the individual track records of judges themselves, compounded by a deep distrust of the entire criminal justice system.
Black residents of Cuyahoga County are arrested and sent to prison at disproportionate rates. To understand what role the court system — and its elected judges — play in these lopsided outcomes, The Marshall Project collected and analyzed more than six years of court data.
Here’s what we found
• Court outcomes worsen existing racial disparities. 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. Individual judges make a big difference — for example, some judges almost never send defendants to prison for common charges like theft and low-level felony drug possession, while others incarcerate 30% or more.
• While Cleveland residents make up two-thirds of defendants in the court, votes from the city account for just a quarter of those cast for judges. That means the vote in the predominantly White suburbs in judges’ races effectively carries three times the power of the vote in the majority Black city.
• Voters have more power than they may think. If everyone who showed up to vote had cast ballots for judges as well, that could have swung the outcome in 9 of 15 contested judicial races since 2016—without turning out a single additional voter.
Judge Brendan J. Sheehan, administrative judge of the Court of Common Pleas, said there’s no straightforward way to determine the role of judges in sentencing disparities. “Simply put, there is a unique story behind each sentence that raw data cannot capture,” he said.
Cuyahoga County’s voting patterns have resulted in mostly White judges deciding the guilt or innocence of the county’s mostly Black criminal defendants. Of the 34 judges currently on the bench in Cuyahoga County, 30 are White and four are Black.
The disparity in power between county and city voters creates a big problem because few judges on the ballot understand the experiences of people who appear in court — often people of color living in the city, said Erika Anthony, who co-founded Cleveland VOTES. “Essentially, our bench is dominated by White, Westside Irish Catholic individuals,” Anthony said.
In Ohio, like most states, voters elect judges. But many races in Cuyahoga County aren’t contested — 20 of the 35 county-level criminal court judicial races since 2016 had a single candidate.
“It’s almost impossible to vote out a judge,” said Jerry Primm II, who has managed judicial campaigns and said there is an unwritten rule among local Democrats to never challenge a sitting judge. “They know they have that job for 30 or 40 years, depending on what their age is.”
Every voting precinct in the county sees a drop-off in voting in judicial races. In November 2020, 29% of county voters marked their ballot for president, but not for judges.
It just isn’t possible for many voters to track the number of candidates and races necessary to participate in judges’ races, experts say.
“Voter’s kind of lose heart after a while,” said Lawrence Baum, emeritus professor of political science at Ohio State University. The sheer number of judicial races and the fact they fall to the bottom of the ballot increases fatigue, he said…
State and local groups have stepped up efforts in recent years to give voters more information on judicial candidates, Sheehan said.
“We should pursue all avenues to get those voters the information they need to make informed choices,” he said.
But more than half of the 46 city and county residents interviewed by Cleveland Documenters said there wasn’t enough relevant information available to help vote in judicial races.
Those who voted for judges said they used campaign ads, news articles, or websites like http://Vote411.org
or http://Judge4Yourself.com, which rate candidates based on interviews with local bar associations. Those sources didn’t answer specific questions they had about candidates or measure how current judges were doing their jobs.
“I would like to know their records of how they sentence, and how strict they are, or how lenient they are, or if they are more prejudiced one way or another way,” said Sara R. Jackson, 79, of University Circle.