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GCC asks Ohio Public Defender Commission to protect Cuyahoga County’s kids, withhold funds

Written by Greater Cleveland Congregations

GCC, attorneys and analysts have asked the Ohio Public Defender Commission to stop reimbursements to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court until it investigates conflicts of interest, inadequate oversight, and the appearance of a pay-to-play system in how attorneys are assigned to represent indigent children.

A delegation of GCC leaders traveled to Columbus on Friday, March 22, to present their concerns about the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court’s use of court-appointed attorneys to the Ohio Public Defender Commission. Reporting and data analysis shows that a small number of attorneys receive most of the juvenile court’s assignments, in violation of state and county administrative policy. Many of the top-earning attorneys donate substantial sums to juvenile court judges’ election campaigns. Some of the attorneys do not appear to meet the qualifications required by the state to represent children.

Cuyahoga County has also, for the past several years, sent Black children to adult courts at a much higher rate than any other county in Ohio.

“Children of color represent a large percentage of inmates in Cuyahoga County not because they are bad, but because it is acceptable to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court for Black children to have inadequate representation,” Rev. King Rodgers of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church told the commission. “We ask you to have Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court follow the law.”

GCC believes all of Cuyahoga County’s indigent children who are accused of crimes deserve the best defense possible. The least we can do is demand legal representation that meets the minimum standards laid out in the Ohio administrative code and the American Constitution. We are therefore calling on the Ohio Public Defender Commission to halt all reimbursements to Cuyahoga County for indigent kids until the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court implements a system for selecting attorneys that removes the appearance of a conflict of interest and ensures that all attorneys hired by the court are fully qualified to represent children.

GCC raised three main factors that indicate Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court’s system for providing representation is unacceptably flawed:

  • While administrative policies at both the state and county levels say qualified attorneys should be assigned on a rotating basis except in exceptional circumstances, a handful of lawyers are receiving most of the court’s cases.

  • Many of the attorneys being assigned to represent children do not meet the state’s training and experience requirements for representing indigent children.

  • All of the attorneys making large amounts of money (>$90,000 annually) as appointed attorneys in juvenile court also donated to juvenile judges’ election campaigns, creating a clear conflict of interest.

Representatives from multiple organizations and offices spoke to reinforce Greater Cleveland Congregations’ request, including:

  • Cuyahoga County Public Defender Cullen Sweeney
  • Angela Chang, Youth Defense Division Director, Hamilton County Public Defender
  • Nikki Baszynski from The Wren Collective, and
  • Leah Winsberg from The Children’s Law Center

Deputy Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Administrator and Chief Legal Counsel Sarah Cigic also attended the meeting remotely, though she did not make a statement during the public comment section. She underscored the importance of a fair system to represent children in juvenile court.

This would not be the first time the Ohio Public Defender Commission has used financial pressure to force county-level reform. In 2010, the commission entered an agreement with Hamilton County to address underinvestment in its indigent care system. In 2015, when Hamilton public defenders still didn’t have private offices where they could speak with clients, the Ohio Public Defender Commission pressured the county to invest in better facilities.

According to its last annual report, the Office of the Ohio Public Defender reimbursed Cuyahoga County over $12 million for appointed attorney fees in 2023.

“Every child deserves an excellent attorney,” said Rev. Ryan Wallace, senior pastor of Fairmount Presbyterian Church. “It should not matter whether they get a public defender or a court-appointed attorney. But right now, it does. Cuyahoga must address the problems inherent in its assignment system to remove the barriers to quality representation for its kids.”

William Creedon, chair of the Ohio Public Defender Commission, told attendees that the commission would investigate the allegations against the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court and discuss further at their next meeting, which will be held in Cuyahoga County in June.


Media contact: Keisha Krumm,, 414-233-0401