PROSECUTOR MIKE O’MALLEY SPEAKS TO THE COMMUNITY...Part III
Question: Do you think that the makeup of the courts truly represents the community, which it serves?
O’Malley: Let’s look at the numbers. We know thirty something percent of Cuyahoga County is African American. The numbers do not reflect the racial composition of our community. I think that when you look at our court that the vast majority of the judges, at least 95% of our court are probably democrats. A significant part of the courts are democrats but I think that we as a democratic party should do a better job of approving candidates, putting those candidates forward, getting the community behind our candidates so that the judiciary does reflect the composition of the County.
Question: Cuyahoga County has continued to be represented by a few Westside popular names and ethnicities rather than true judicial representation of people who are sensitive to the needs and depravity in the County. Do you see this as a problem as it pertains to jurist representation on the bench? How can we combat it?
O’Malley: Going back to my previous answer, the vast majority of the bench is democrats and represents the Democratic Party. A significant voting bloc in the Democratic Party has historically been African American. We, as a party, have to do a better job of putting forth candidates who reflect the diversity of the community and we need to do a better job of getting behind them. We see the situation with Judge4Yourself where I know there were activists who called out that group, and I know that prosecutors have historically been excluded from that process as well. To the detriment of the process, I am hopeful that those issues have been worked out. I do know also that because of that activism that they are more sensitive to minority communities within our county. I know that participants in Judge4Yourself have gone through and participated in racial bias training to try to make that process as fair as possible. A great deal of our community gives credence and credibility to the Judge4Yourself screening process so that hopefully that brings a better diverse group of candidates.
Question: Elected and sworn jurists have a habit of literally being on the golf course when there is a need for their presence in the courtroom. This slows the judicial process and keeps more people in jail rather than being in court. Can and should the Prosecutor’s Office expose the individuals who do not realize the responsibility and subjectivity that they have to the public who pay their salaries?
O’Malley: It’s a balancing act. On one hand, as we discussed earlier, we have to have a partnership to improve what is in this community and to improve the criminal justice system. I can improve singularly what I can fix in my office, so that is easy. I can accomplish and improve that within a day because when I say that is the way that it is, that is what happens. When we talk about bail reform, expanding drug court or when we discuss working towards diversion centers or expanding eligibility for pretrial diversions many things demand and require us that we work in partnership. So the difficulty, when you say that there are judges teeing off or that they have a tee time, I don’t hear where the diversion exists. People need to be at work and they need to be at work on behalf of the taxpayers. The vast majority of the Common Pleas judges work. The Prosecutor’s Office sees judges whose dockets are small, the amount of prisoners in the County Jail is very minute and you can see that they are focused on doing the best job that they can for the taxpayers. Like every other occupation there is a variety in the dedication and the quality of the workforce. Is there some judges who could probably be at work more often? The answer is, “Certainly” the vast majority of the jurors within our County work very hard and do the best job that they can. You see that in the numbers. There have been public records and requests made to my office by both the media and community activists. I don’t have a problem of providing the data that our computer systems show. The public has the ability to see what is going on, what judges have people in county jail, what judges work and the size of each judge’s docket. The data is out there. The data is available. I don’t hide from the data. People make records request and we provide it. What I try to do as prosecutor is maintain a good working relationship. I have actually had one-on-one conversations with judges whose dockets appear to be bloated. I tell them that, “I will work with you. Whatever we can do to help you bring these numbers down we will do.” However, in the end it is a balancing act trying to maintain good working relationships. We want to improve the relationship so that we can improve the bigger picture in aiding to steer people forward in a professional manner to improve the numbers.
Question: Have you seen and can you point to disparity in cases where persons of color and culture have been given diversion programs rather than being sentenced to jail? Is this about more money coming from minorities who serve time and promote funds for phone, commissary and prison reimbursement rather than justice being served?
O’Malley: I gave you the example about drug court. There is a diversionary program where I believe that Americans are being underserved. I think they should have an equal right to participate in that program. You can craft an eligibility criteria to accomplish a great deal. If you make it very narrow, you are going to be eliminating good candidates. I can make a very rational argument that you may want to consider. Your criteria should be people who have a history of very violent activities because that would make the community safer. Let’s get those people cured of their addictions. Let’s put these people on the right path. I do believe that there are some programs that the criteria are discriminating against and they are minorities and people of color. Those programs need to be looked at and scrutinized. The eligibility needs to be expanded so that the community as a whole can improve their outlook in life.
Question: So from that response, in your opinion; is there racism in our jurist system?
O’Malley: I don’t know that it is conscious overt racism. Certainly, there are some effects of that whether it is sub-conscious or people doing actions that they don’t really perceive to be racially bias, but the results turn out that way. I have not seen any acts of overt racism within the system where people are just punishing people because of the color of their skin. But do I believe that the effects are there? Yes, I do! I’ve seen it and I believe that we as a community need to try to keep a level playing field for all individuals.
Question: You gave a response earlier pertaining to the Prosecutor’s Office overcharging in the system in order to get a conviction. Do you think that the process is better now?
O’Malley: Absolutely! I have had many discussions with my Grand Jury staff. When you ask people, “What is overcharging?” you could ask five different people and probably get seven different answers. No one can quite put his or her finger on it. When I define, overcharging is charging people in a way that it forces them into a plea situation because they are afraid of the outcome. At least that is my definition. Other people may have their own definition. I have made it clear to my people that they should be charged fairly, accurately and that there should not be a multitude of charges against them. We need to just fairly and accurately present cases and present charges to a grand jury, which fairly reflects the activity that we are, alleged that they have committed. I do believe it is better. I have discussions with my staff in that regard to maintain that they continue to monitor the situation. I think that you will find that they are doing a good job. For instance, there has historically been an issue in relation to kidnapping charges. I preach to my people, especially in a domestic situation, where there is a quick situation where a person is not allowed to leave that they want to add kidnapping. We want to stay away from those types of situations where through a technicality you can put on an F1 when it is not really needed.
To be continued...