Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Needs Grand Jury Reform Now!
Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Needs Grand Jury Reform Now!
This Position Statement has been endorsed by the following organizations and community leaders:
- Northeast Ohio Action Team - ACLU of Ohio
- Ohio Student Association
- Ohio Organizing Collaborative
- Showing Up for Racial Justice, Northeast Ohio Chapter
- Lewis Katz, Professor Emeritus of Law
Please email email@example.com if you are a community leader and/or if your organization would like to be added as an endorser.
Indictment by Grand Jury is where all felonies begin their legal process. Because a majority of defendants (over 95%) accept plea bargains after indictment, most accused citizens never see a jury of their peers. A 14-person panel of citizens called-up through the jury pool, the Grand Jury spends 2 days a week for four months reviewing allegations to determine whether there is enough prosecutorial evidence to indict (i.e. proceed with legal action). There is no voice for the defendant.
The Grand Jury is supposed to be an impartial, independent body. However, historically and currently, the Grand Jury is weighted in favor of the prosecution due to inadequate training, biased preparation, and insufficient access to evidence. Read more about Cuyahoga County Grand Jury in this article.
Cuyahoga County must implement the following reforms to ensure that the Grand Jury is fair and unbiased.
> REDUCE PROSECUTORIAL BIAS IN HOW GRAND JURIES ARE TRAINED
By design, Grand Juries only hear from the prosecution; thus the entire process is biased in the prosecution's favor. We demand that Grand Jury training be overhauled to ensure neutrality and to adequately prepare jurors. We also demand that prosecutors not be permitted to stack charges. (Stacking charges is the practice of bringing a large number of often redundant charges against a defendant, which intimidates defendants into plea bargaining and also can result in biasing the jury.)
- Overhaul training to better prepare Grand Juries. At minimum, include presentations by previous Grand Jury members; a defense attorney or public defender; and hands-on training about Ohio’s criminal laws.
- Training should be led by a neutral party, not coordinated by the prosecutor’s office, who is a party to all Grand Jury cases.
- Through printed handbooks, swearing-in, and training, educate jurors up-front that very few cases (≤ 5%) will go to trial. If there is uncertainty about *any* element, the jurors need to slow the process and carefully review evidence.
- Curtail the prosecutorial practice of stacking charges. This process exploits the Grand Jury and manipulates the accused (to elicit a plea).
- Empower the Grand Jury to directly review and interpret the laws that are being applied. Otherwise, jurors are put in a position of deference to prosecutors, which undermines the Grand Jury’s impartiality.
- Provide jurors with printed copies of the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), which defines all state crimes.
- Prioritize and clarify the jail audit function of the Grand Jury. Provide a checklist and copies of prior Grand Jury reports on jail conditions.
Ensure submitted Grand Jury reports are read and actions are taken to remedy issues.
> REDUCE WRONGFUL INDICTMENTS BY IMPROVING GRAND JURY ACCESS TO EVIDENCE
For the majority of cases, the only evidence presented is the initial police report, and often it is presented by a liaison who has no first-hand knowledge of the incident. The largest city in Cuyahoga County, Cleveland is under a Consent Decree due to excessive use of force by police. Our county’s felony indictments should not rely solely upon law enforcement’s testimony.
- Require law enforcement officers to present their own cases. Grand Jury Liaisons are only able to furnish the jury with the information included in the written report, which the jury could just as easily read themselves.
- Require third-party evidence (camera footage or witnesses) to charge a citizen with resisting/fleeing/obstructing.
- Require camera footage to verify any consent/cause to search a vehicle that becomes the foundation of a felony charge.
- Require prosecutors to honor requests to review evidence. Provide the Grand Jury with clear and immediate recourse if such requests are not honored.
> REDUCE RACIAL DISPARITIES WITHIN THE INDICTMENT PROCESS
Systemic barriers and institutionalized racism lead to wrongful felonization of citizens. Our national, state, and municipal laws are founded upon a lineage of post-slavery felonization of blackness, brownness, and poverty. Cuyahoga County needs to begin the process of dismantling the bias that is embedded in our criminal laws and policies.
- Eliminate cash bail for all non-violent offenses.
- Reduce the number of crimes that are considered felonies, including drug possession and nonviolent crimes, such as passing counterfeit money.
- Allow for a more representative jury by paying minimum wage or shortening the term.
- Empower the Grand Jury to identify cases that should be routed to the specialized mental health docket.
- To address excessive use of force by law enforcement, camera footage should be regularly audited — not solely when there are complaints. Every municipality should have a citizen review panel to conduct random and routine audits of body/dash cam footage.
- We call upon the State of Ohio to update and implement the changes recommended by Chief Justice O’Connor’s Task Force to Examine Improvements in the Ohio Grand Jury System. In the interim, we recommend that Cuyahoga County implement the 2016 recommendations even if the state does not.
Read more about these recommendations here.